"This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
Come, Armageddon, come Armageddon come."
Morrissey – Everyday is Like Sunday
26th August, 1996
Morrissey's voice is blaring from the speaker and Merlin's got the window wound down to feel the breeze against his face. The A303 stretches before them, an endless grey expanse, the road to bloody nowhere, or at least it might as well be. A line of traffic clogs up the other carriageway, filled with all the normal, sensible people who are crawling away from the seaside at the end of the Bank Holiday -- back to their homes, back to civilization -- not hurtling towards it at seventy miles an hour. His mum, driving, doesn't say anything about either the volume of the music or the roar from the open window. He can't work out whether that means she's feeling guilty about the whole uprooting him from his home town and moving to the coast thing or possibly she's just had enough of his whining and doesn't want to talk to him either. Probably a combination of the above. It suits him just fine either way.
Merlin makes lists in his head to take his mind off things: top ten Suede songs, Smiths albums in order of preference, opening songs from Smiths albums in order of preference, closing songs from Smiths albums in order of preference. Inevitably, though, his mind wanders back to the list of Reasons Why Moving To The Arse-End of Nowhere Is A Terminally Shit Idea. It's a long list. And it's not even as though Merlin liked living on the estate in Ealdor, not really, although having this pointed out to him results in a mulish silence. He just doesn't want to be moving, away from his home, away from everything he knows, away from Freya. Away from Will.
Merlin sighs and winds up the window, although he purposefully doesn't turn the stereo down. He kicks off his shoes and tucks his knees under his chin and tries to ignore the way his guitar case is poking him in the ribs on one side. The footwell is full of his possessions: his box of tapes, his posters (carefully de-blu-takked and rolled up), his books. His clothes and duvet are in the back. They haven't brought much -- never owned the furniture in the last place anyway, and the flat above Uncle Gaius's shop is furnished, supposedly. It's depressingly little to show for seventeen years. And even if the thought occurs to him, then, that it might be just as hard, harder, even, for his mother – thirty-something and moving half way across the country to throw herself on the charity of a distant relative with a car full of junk and a sulky teenager in tow – then he doesn't let it show. But he does turn the stereo down, just a notch.
Merlin must have fallen asleep because when he wakes they're going nothing like as fast, creeping past buildings and the odd palm tree that, really, is just going to look ridiculous come the winter. He rubs his eyes and squirms in his seat, rubbing the back of his neck which has developed an irritating crick and blinking, unimpressed, out of the window at their surroundings.
Camelot-on-sea (as if he's going to be calling it that, just Camelot's bad enough) is every bit as rubbish as Merlin remembers from occasional childhood holidays. The squawk of seagulls, the smell of brine, the endless rows of yellow brick flat-fronted houses – either inhabited by retired people or holiday homes which will soon be empty. He sees a few of the elderly residents as they drive past, sat out in their deckchairs in their front gardens, shuffling back from the shops and he wants to turn to his mum and say, see, I told you. All that nonsense about making new friends his own age – chance would be a fine thing, nobody under the age of sixty lives in this dead-end town. Not that he has any hopes of making friends anyway – why can his mum not understand that it simply isn't that easy, you can't just roll up half way through your A-levels, start a new school and expect anyone to even glance in your direction, much less make friends.
The car slows, winding into town, closer to the seafront. This is another thing his mother has tried to sell to him as an advantage of the place they're moving to, so near the beach and the shops. Merlin has very little use for shopping, besides occasional excursions to Woolworths to buy tapes and pic 'n' mix, and doesn't like the feel of sand beneath his toes. Living in town means dirt and noise and townies and he suddenly misses Ealdor with a fierceness that takes his breath away.
It's late, not dark yet but the light fading, and it's been a long day. Merlin doesn't really want to leave the cocoon of the car, as uncomfortable as it is, and his legs feel funny when he stretches them out and walks up the path to Uncle Gaius's. The Chippy is shut up and they head straight for the side door, the one that leads straight to the flat upstairs. Merlin's mother rings the doorbell and they wait, Merlin shuffling around on the spot to displace the sudden chill which has settled in. At last it opens and Gaius, still in his work apron, lets them into the narrow hallway, greeting Hunith with a hug and Merlin with a handshake which he tolerates, not rolling his eyes until the old man's back is turned. There are two separate flats and theirs is on the second floor, the first being given over to Gaius's rooms. Merlin wants nothing more than to be alone, to put his headphones on and drown out the world around him, but instead he's dragged along on 'the tour' – as if they'd have trouble finding anything in a flat the size of a postage stamp, anyway.
He's surprised by the sudden pressure of an arm around his shoulders.
"You'll get used to it," his mother says softly. "Once you've got your posters up, it'll look more like your own room." Merlin wants to say that he had his own room, a hundred or more miles away, and that was fine, thank you very much, but he knows there's no point in fighting it anymore, not now that they're here, now that it's finally real. "Come for a walk with me," his mum says, giving his shoulders a squeeze. "I'll get us some chips from the shop."
Merlin nods, swallowing the lump in his throat, and follows her back down the stairs.
Gaius has closed the chip shop early, it being a Bank Holiday and all, but there's still the last few chips kept warm and a battered sausage that he suspects Gaius has saved just for him, remembering they were his favourites when he was little. The gesture warms him as much as the hot food, and as they wander down to the railings above the beach, things already seem a little less hopeless. He picks up a piece of crispy batter and flicks it out to sea, where it is set upon by greedy seagulls who have been waiting expectantly from the moment they saw them arrive.
"It's going to be alright, Merlin," is all his mum says, and it's less elaborate, less enthusiastic than her promises of new starts and new friends and sunshine, but also more honest.
So he's not lying when he turns to her and says, "Yeah, I suppose."
She nudges him and smiles, and he can't help but smile back, just a little.
There's a pounding on his door and Merlin pulls his pillow over his head. It's not even nine, and he didn't have any plans to get up at all today, let alone before ten o'clock.
"Merlin Rhys!" his mum calls, and this is her strict mum voice, not to be disobeyed, "Get yourself showered and dressed; I told Gaius you'd help him in the shop today."
This does get his attention and he's at the door in no time, dragging his duvet with him, blinking stupidly at her.
"I've got my orientation at my new job today. You can make yourself useful by helping your uncle in the shop until school starts again, and then we'll think about how many hours would be reasonable to fit in with your studies."
"But what? It's high time you got yourself a job, and at least this way you know you won't be late. Well," she reflects, "Not if you get yourself downstairs in the next five minutes anyway."
She turns on her heel to go.
"Do I get minimum wage?" Merlin calls after her, scowling at the door when he gets no response. Perhaps Gaius will pay him in battered sausage and chips. Merlin thinks he'd be sort of ok with that.
The shower is one of those which is really just a hose attached to the bath taps. Merlin struggles to get the balance of hot and cold right and spends about thirty seconds hissing and squawking under the spray before giving it up as a bad job and hopping back to the bedroom, drying himself on a t-shirt because they haven't unpacked the towels yet.
Gaius raises a disapproving eyebrow at him when he finally skitters down the stairs, hair still damp and curling at the nape of his neck, and Merlin guesses that he's late despite his best efforts. Which is not really his fault, he decides, since he didn't even know about this until he woke up this morning. Gaius shows him the ropes -- the fryer, the warming plates, the till -- before getting him to slice up lettuce and tomatoes for the burgers.
At around eleven thirty, Cedric shows up. Cedric is a weasely-looking sort of a man, somewhere between the ages of twenty and forty, at Merlin's best guess. He gives Merlin an insincere sort of smile and Merlin wants to hold his hands up and say, look, I'm not after your job, mate, seriously. But the thing that really strikes Merlin is the grease; Cedric's hair is stringy with it, it's there in his wispy little excuse for a beard. Merlin can practically smell it coming out of his pores and he's only just arrived.
Cedric seems determined to run him into trouble, telling Gaius when Merlin puts the veggie burgers in the same fryer as the fish, sniggering when he burns himself on the hot plate. His first shift in the shop goes by in a blur of heat and fat and Cedric's petty annoyances and Merlin swears to himself that he will not spend the rest of his life working in a chip shop. He has nothing but respect for Gaius for having built up his business, but he's determined that regardless of how much he hates his new school (and there's no question but that he will hate it, that's a given), he will work himself to the bone to get good grades, get out of this shop and this dead end town.
He's given the evening to himself and takes his guitar down to the beach, sitting on a rock and strumming listlessly through a few covers. He knows, objectively, that there's enough upheaval in his life right now to provide material for a dozen angst-ridden songs, but he's oddly content just playing chords and listening to the way the roll of the waves across the rocks and the whistle of the wind provide their own odd accompaniment.
There's a whole week until the start of term. Merlin gets the hang of things in the chip shop so soon even Cedric hasn't anything to complain about. By Thursday he is on the tills, taking orders from the last few lingering tourists and locals on their lunch breaks. Occasionally he has trouble with the accent of foreign tourists, and sometimes they ask for odd things like chips with mayonnaise (he tries it, later, and revises his initial opinion of disgust), and the locals sigh and talk loudly to him like he's simple the first time they ask for a chip butty and he doesn't know they mean a chip batch. But the kids are the worst, stealing the ketchup sachets, dropping litter and trying to nick off without paying for cans of coke.
On Saturday morning Merlin has just sprinted half way down the seafront after a couple of twelve year old tosspots who've made off with two cans of Sprite and a whole box of chip forks only to lose them as they vault over the promenade and down onto the beach and make their getaway, scattering chip forks as they go. As he slopes back to the shop there's a queue forming and he curses under what little breath he has left.
"Nice jog?" smirks the boy with hair parted in blond curtains at the head of the queue. "Some of us are waiting to be served, you know."
"Sod off," Merlin says, too tired to think of a witty comeback. The boy's eyebrows climb, almost disappearing behind his ridiculous boyband fringe and his mates whistle and nudge each other.
"Now, now, aren't you supposed to be nice to the customers?"
"Only when they're not prats," Merlin mutters under his breath, but from the frown on his face the prat hears him anyway. "What can I get you, sir?" he asks through gritted teeth.
"Fish and chips," the boy demands, not so much as a please. "And a can of Coke."
"Straight away, sir," Merlin says, all false sweetness. He looks him up and down. One of those fit-but-they-know-it types, just asking to be taken down a peg or two. "Would sir prefer Diet Coke?" It takes the prat a while to latch on to the insinuation, but when he does his face darkens with fury, even as he surreptitiously sucks his stomach in a little. Merlin pretends to be diligently writing down his order to hide his laughter. He composes himself to take the orders of the next couple of lads in the queue before busying himself with taking a fresh batch of chips out of the fryer.
"Wrapped or open?" he asks, looking up when there's a moment's hesitation, like the prat can't quite work out whether he's being mocked again or not.
"Open," he says at last, in a stilted sort of a way and Merlin can't work out whether it's just the South Coast accent or whether he really is just that posh.
Merlin finds himself grinning as he walks off, pretty sure he's won that round, even if it does cost Gaius a customer. He's still grinning as the next customer reaches the counter, a pretty, curvy girl with a nervous sort of a smile.
"Cone of chips and a diet Coke, please," she asks, with a knowing look. Merlin feels a little abashed, then.
"Er, you know I didn't mean... I mean, I was only winding him up, I don't really think he's... or you! Obviously, not you, you're, er..." Merlin stops himself in the act of miming some kind of action – he's not even sure what, but the look on the girl's face tells him it's not a good idea.
"Oh I know," she says. "I thought it was quite funny. Not a lot of people stand up to Arthur."
"You know him then?"
"Everybody knows Arthur," the girl says, "I think half the school is in love with him."
"With that... fop?" Merlin snorts and his new friend giggles. "I can't imagine why." He scoops a generous portion of chips into the polystyrene cone. "What school?" he can't help but ask.
"I start there next week," Merlin says. "Just moved," he adds, to forestall the inevitable questions. "Salt and vinegar?"
"Please. What year?"
"Thirteen," Merlin pulls a face.
"Oh, maybe we'll see each other then. Don't be scared to say hi. Not that you'd be scared, scared, obviously. I'm Gwen, by the way."
"Like the wizard?" She gives him a winning smile.
"Like the wizard," he agrees, and it's only because she's the first person that's actually been bothered to be nice to him in Camelot that he smiles back and pretends he hasn't heard it seventeen million times before.
By the end of the week, Merlin feels like he's aged at least ten years and quite ready to sit on the front steps with a cigarette and complain about the youth of today. Instead he opts for locking himself in the back bedroom with a pack of blu-tak and sticking up all the posters of his favourite bands he's got out of the NME, listening to the Manics as loud as he can until the neighbours start banging on the wall. There's naff all chance he's going to get to see them or anyone else live, living down here in the sticks, miles from civilization. This is the best he's going to get.
The third of September is the day the second world war broke out, Merlin remembers as he's awoken by his alarm the following Tuesday. It feels a little bit like preparing to go into battle, he thinks as he eyes the uniform hanging up freshly ironed on the door of his wardrobe. It had been one of many points of contention between him and his mother, the uniform. Camelot doesn't have a sixth-form college like Ealdor, so he's been enrolled in the sixth-form of the local school. Which apparently requires even its sixth-formers to wear the standard uniform of shirt, tie and black blazer with an embroidered gold crest in the shape of a dragon -- or possibly a griffin, Merlin can't quite work out which. Merlin remembers the ceremonial burning of his Ealdor school tie after his GCSEs. Having to wear a uniform again feels like a colossal step backwards, and he casts a longing glance at his Doc Martins and his selection of jeans and band t-shirts.
His mum gives him a gooey-eyed look as he slopes out of his room and jams some bread in the toaster and Merlin really hopes he isn't in for another of her homilies on the subject of 'settling in', 'being assertive', or worse, 'safe sex'. He shudders at the mere memory of that one.
It's too warm for a blazer, still, and his shirt, newly purchased from Marks, feels stiff and uncomfortable. Merlin walks along, purposefully scuffing his shoes as much as possible. He'd wanted to blend in, to slip in unnoticed, not to stick out like a shiny-shoed sore thumb. New brat in town. His battered Adidas rucksack is slung over one shoulder, stuffed full of essentials – pens, notebook, Twix, bacon sarnie and two mix-tapes. His walkman is safely ensconced in his blazer pocket, and as he listens to Thom Yorke singing, destiny protect me from the world, things don't seem quite so bleak. He even manages a smile as he passes through the imposing iron gates of the school.
It's soon wiped off his face, though, when not six paces inside the building, paying more attention to the door signs than to where he's going, he bumps right into somebody and the headphones slip off his ears. The sudden change in audio landscape from Radiohead to the sounds of a busy school corridor is momentarily disorientating.
Merlin feels his new-found optimism about the possibility of the day being something other than a complete disaster dissipate entirely when he looks up into a pair of familiarly annoyed blue eyes.
"You," he echoes. Arthur's eyes narrow and there's a smug satisfaction in his tone as he says,
"What?" Merlin all but squawks. "You can't just give me detention! Who do you think you are, the headmaster?"
"Nope," Arthur smiles, all teeth. "The head boy."
Of course this is the sort of school that has a head boy. And of course Arthur is the sort of bossy, stuck-up prat who would be it. Merlin takes in the red tie-pin shaped like a shield with 'head boy' written across it in gold lettering and groans.
It turns out, Merlin deciphers from Arthur's delighted recitation of the school rules, that the head boy – and, indeed, any of the senior prefects – can in fact hand out detentions for infractions of the rules, including but not limited to listening to headphones in school corridors, not walking sensibly in the corridors, and calling the head boy fat. Merlin's not entirely sure about the last one, especially since he never actually said the word fat, and the whole incident didn't even take place on school premises. He points this out and Arthur's know-it-all expression falters a little. Merlin suspects he's a bit drunk on his own self-importance.
"Do I have to call you sir?" Merlin asks with false sweetness. Arthur glares at him.
"What's your name?"
"Merlin Rhys," Merlin says, little point in lying.
He waits for the inevitable 'like the wizard?', but Arthur says, instead, “Like the politician?" Which seems to him to sum up Arthur completely. He shrugs, although it's not the first time he's heard that before either (just the first time he's heard it from someone under the age of thirty). Arthur wrinkles his nose. "What were you listening to, anyway?"
"Pablo Honey," he says, and waits for Arthur to make some dumb comment like who's he?. Arthur looks like he probably listens to Corona, some dance shit like that. There’s a chance he's heard of Blur and Oasis from some article in the Financial Times, perhaps. Arthur surprises him, though, by nodding.
"Good choice. I prefer The Bends, though. Detention is during lunch break, half an hour in room A14. Better run along now if you don't want to miss registration, though. Who's your tutor?"
Merlin, a little phased by the direction this encounter is taking, looks down at the piece of paper in his hand.
"Mr. Kilgarrah. G6."
"Straight along the corridor, turn left, then left again. Oh and Merlin?"
"Try to look where you're going in future."
Merlin has the unaccountable feeling that he's lost this round. Well, it's Arthur's home turf, after all, he supposes, before devoting his attention to looking where he's going -- wouldn't do to give the prat another excuse to hand out detention, after all.
His initial fears that this school is going to be some kind of suffocating totalitarian regime policed by a team of posh prats in blazers where you can't eat or speak or even have a slash without asking permission prove to be largely unfounded. There's a lot of work to do, he's having to switch exam boards in English Literature which means all that time spent reading bloody Robinson Crusoe last year was wasted and the teachers are a good deal stricter about attendance than at his old college. But there's also a sixth form common room, with comfy chairs and a vending machine which supplies all Merlin's caffeine needs, as well as a study room, a library and a refectory in which to spend the time not in class, and nobody seems to mind if he has his headphones on in there, which he usually does. He's not here to make friends, after all, even though he has to try hard to silence the nagging feeling that he may be punishing nobody but himself with his social withdrawal.
It's not as if he's a total loner, though. He bumps into Gwen on the second day and she insists on giving him the unofficial tour – where the stoners hang out, who to talk to if you want to get a roll-up or some fake ID --
"Not that I'm suggesting you should, obviously, I wouldn't want to encourage underage drinking. Not that I'm judging you if you do, and I'm not saying I've never, only --"
"Gwen, it's fine, really. I appreciate the tip, but I already have some." He'd sorted it himself – pretended to lose his NUS card, gotten a replacement and teased the laminate apart, not too hard to change '79' to '78' after all. Lucky he wasn't born a year later.
She's the one who tells him that no-one eats in the refectory if they can possibly avoid it, and after his experience with a practically indigestible burger on the first day, he can well believe it. Fifth and sixth formers have blanket permission to leave the premises during the lunch hour, as long as they return for afternoon registration. Merlin thinks he'd be quite happy existing on chocolate and crisps from the vending machines, but the idea of escaping the school grounds for an hour is undeniably appealing.
They're interrupted by a strikingly pretty girl dressed all in black, who snakes one arm around Gwen's shoulder and says, “Who's this, then, Gwen, your holiday romance?"
There's a slight smirk on her lips, and Merlin tenses, not sure yet whether this is good natured teasing or something meaner. Gwen looks flustered, but then she's gotten flustered about three times already since they started talking twenty minutes ago, so that doesn't tell him all that much.
"This is just Merlin," Gwen says, and Merlin's not sure whether to be offended at the qualifier, or whether it is, in it's own way, a form of protection against potential unpleasant interest. He's been bullied enough in the past to know that there's no reason it should stop in sixth form.
"Hello," the girl says, without offering her own name in return, and glides away. Merlin lets out a breath he didn't even know he'd been holding.
"Morgana," Gwen supplies. "She's lovely, but she can be a bit... well, she's very... She doesn't date boys here at school." Merlin chokes a little at Gwen's assumption, but she's moved on before he can correct it. "You've met her twin brother already, of course. They own half of Camelot, I think. Well, their dad, I mean."
"I've met her brother?" Merlin frowns and glances around the common room. There's a dark haired guy in the corner drumming against his leg, but his colouring is too different to Morgana's. There's a tall, heavy set kid with a similar smirk, who Merlin's caught giving him looks in History which suggest he's marking him out for a future target of mockery, but his leer at Morgana's cleavage as she walks by is anything but fraternal.
"Arthur?" Gwen prompts and Merlin blinks at her.
"What, head boy Arthur? With the Leonardo DiCaprio hair?" Merlin gapes.
Gwen giggles. "I hadn't thought about it like that, but now that you mention it. Yeah, did you not know that?"
"I've been here two days, Gwen, I've barely worked out the way to the bogs, let alone the school's royal family tree." She snorts at this and he feels more at ease. "I suppose she's head girl as well, then?"
"Morgana? God, no. She doesn't really do you know, convention." Merlin nods, he can see that. "She's ever so clever, though," Gwen continues, "She's taking Maths and Further Maths and two sciences. All the nerds are head over heels."
"I can imagine," Merlin says and immediately wishes he hadn't as Gwen gives him a speculative, almost disappointed look. "Although, er, I'm sure they're just as mad for you."
Gwen laughs. "Nice save."
"Sorry," Merlin shrugs. "I'm not very good at..."
"Talking to girls?"
"Talking to people. Best avoided."
"Oh, definitely." She smiles at him. "Still, I'll see you around?" There's a note to her voice that sounds like she's asking a question underneath the question she's actually asking, and this, Merlin remembers, is just one point on the long list of reasons why you need your wits about you when you talk to girls. He nods anyway and she waves as she heads off.
Arthur's in his history class. He's a bit of a boff, Merlin surmises from his frequent responses to questions and copious note taking, but he doesn't give him any more trouble. Merlin finds himself far more concerned with Valiant, a townie twat who exudes an air of belligerent animosity -- possibly, Merlin thinks, in an effort to disguise his academic shortcomings – and who asks Merlin pointedly whether he bought his clothes at Oxfam or the Spastic Society. He's not even subtle enough to leave it at that, going on to ask Merlin if he is, in fact, a spastic, much to the amusement of the two lads who sit with him. Merlin ignores it. It's no worse than what they used to call him at his old school, after all.
Three evenings a week and one shift on Saturdays are spent in the chip shop, up to his elbows in grease. Any free time he gets, he spends with his guitar.
He's been keeping his head down as best he can for nearly four weeks when he's called into see Mr. Kilgarrah. He picks nervously at the end of his tie where there's a thread loose, wondering whether he's failing one of his subjects or he's been reported by an overly officious prefect for having his shirt untucked.
Mr. Kilgarrah looks about a hundred, and the green tweed jacket he wears every day must be even older than he is. Merlin swears he can hear creaking when he lifts his head to look at him.
"Ah, Mr. M. Rhys, isn't it? Do sit down," Mr. Kilgarrah motions to the empty chair in front of his desk. "Oh don't look like that, boy, you're not in trouble." He shuffles some papers while Merlin suppresses the urge to sigh impatiently. "I see that you're taking three A-levels."
"Yes," Merlin says, adding, "sir," just in case.
"It seems that the school has neglected to inform you that in order to qualify as a full time student, you are required to register for a further two hours on one of our extra-curricular programmes that run on Wednesday afternoons. There are a number of options available to you –"
Merlin's stomach begins to sink somewhere between the c and the t of the word cricket and all but tunes out the rest of the list – rugby, football, athletics, etc. He had hoped he'd left compulsory physical activity behind him. But just as he's mentally weighing up whether long distance running would be hell on earth or potentially provide an opportunity to nick off into town half way round the route, a word catches his attention.
"Wait, what was that?"
"Music workshop?" Mr Kilgarrah raises an eyebrow. So he hadn't imagined it.
"Is that like... an orchestra, or..."
"There is an orchestra, a brass band and even a rock band or two. Although membership of an actual group is not compulsory, some measure of collaborative involvement is expected. In fact, I believe there is one group in need of a guitarist, should that happen to be your instrument of choice. Who knows, it could be destiny. Shall I put your name down for the workshop, then?"
"Yes," Merlin said, throat unaccountably dry, "Yes, ok. Sir."
The idea that spending the afternoon playing the guitar is now actually officially part of his study programme seems almost too good to be true. Merlin hasn't let himself think about the possibility of getting in a band; he's four weeks late and the lower sixth have probably filled any slots there might be. Besides, he knows these sorts of things come down more to who you know than what you can do. He signs himself in on the register (an informality that takes him a little by surprise, he'd imagined there would be an officious prefect taking names and marking down latecomers at the least) and fills in a registration questionnaire.
Under Instruments Merlin writes guitar. Under Grade or approximation of proficiency, he puts pretty good. He thinks for a moment, the tang of ink on his tongue as he unconsciously chews the end of the pen, and adds can read tab and play most chords, still getting the hang of Dsus4.
The form is taken from him and looked over while Merlin stares at the peeling posters of classical musicians arranged in order from Baroque to Contemporary. Beethoven gives him a forbidding glare.
"Avalon are in need of a guitarist," he's told. "They've been auditioning fifth formers but you might as well go and see if they want you. Practice room 3."
Merlin's too busy trying not to snort out loud at the name 'Avalon' to ask where practice room 3 is located, and it takes him longer than he should. He's thoroughly prepared for a roomful of greasy haired metal-heads playing Iron Maiden covers, so when he finally pushes open the heavy yellow door, he's a little wrong-footed to hear the bassline of Creep.
He's heard enough bad covers of this song before. The sound's wrong, with prominent drums and too much bass and no lead guitar, lacking somehow. But even as he registers that fact, Merlin can't help but be transfixed by that voice, strong and clear, with just a hint of rawness, almost breaking at the end of a plaintive I don't belong here.
Merlin feels it right through him, a creeping chill of rightness, and he's recalling Mr. Kilgarrah's comment about destiny, regardless of the fact that he doesn't believe in such things, because right now he's pretty sure there's nothing he wants more in the world than to play with this band.
Right until Arthur Pendragon breaks off in the middle of a line, jerks his head in Merlin's direction and demands, “What the hell do you want?"
Merlin's aware that he's doing an impression of a landed fish, gaping and not knowing quite what to say. That the stuck-up prat of a head boy is the one responsible for the beautiful sound which had him so transfixed has thrown him, more than a bit.
"Nice," he eventually chokes out. "Although really, you're never going to get anywhere churning out the same covers as anybody else."
He's not quite sure what makes him say it, but his gut feeling says fawning over the band is not the way to endear him to them. And it's true, obviously. Arthur's eyes narrow and there's a vein pulsing angrily in his neck. Merlin is dimly aware that he really should not be paying such close attention to Arthur Pendragon's neck, when Arthur clenches his jaw and says, "And I say again, what the hell do you want?"
"I want to join the band."
There's a brief, uncertain moment, when Arthur can't seem to make up his mind whether to shout at Merlin or to laugh at him.
"You?" he says incredulously. "Can you even play the guitar?"
"Maybe we should at least give him a chance, Arthur." It's the girl who speaks. Merlin tears his eyes away from Arthur to actually look at the rest of the band for the first time. The goth girl – Morgana, Arthur's sister, he remembers – is on bass. The drummer looks as though he ought to be in a Guns and Roses tribute act, all long hair and and dark good looks and a denim jacket which Merlin is pretty sure would be enough of a uniform infraction for Arthur to start handing out detentions, had it been anyone else. "Hi. I'm Morgana, and this is Lance. It seems you already know Arthur."
She unhooks one of the school's acoustics from the wall and hands it over. It's badly out of tune and Merlin spends some time tweaking and adjusting the strings. Arthur coughs sceptically, like he thinks Merlin is just stalling, so Merlin slides his hands down and starts playing Creep. It's only four chords, even an idiot with six thumbs could play it, so after a while he changes to Street Spirit instead, picking out the notes faster than really necessary, just to show off. Then he goes for Layla, because it's a classic any self-respecting guitarist should know, and Sweet Child Of Mine, which seems to impress Lance, before going back to Radiohead and Anyone Can Play Guitar, just to make a point.
By the time he's finished his little medley, Morgana is grinning, Lance the drummer is nodding thoughtfully, and Arthur is doing his best to keep his expression unreadable, which Merlin counts as a small victory in itself.
"Alright, you can play, that's clear. But that's not all there is to it. What do you think of Suede?"
The question comes from nowhere, and Merlin blinks.
"The band or the material? Is there going to be some kind of uniform? Because I can tell you right now I'm not going to do that."
"Oh, I like him," Morgana says, "Can we keep him?"
"The band," Arthur says, ignoring his sister.
"Pretty much my favourite band ever. Love their latest album. Shame about Butler leaving, though."
"Oasis or Blur?"
"Blur," Merlin scoffs, as though it's obvious.
"Manic Street Preachers?"
"The Smiths or The Cure?"
"The Cure, then."
Arthur tuts, and Merlin knows he's got that one wrong, in Arthur's eyes. Arthur hits him with a few more. It's pretty much the best interview he's ever had for anything, ever, and the idea that Arthur likes all of the same bands as he does, even down to Geneva and Northern Uproar, blows his mind just a little. There's a sort of instant kinship that comes with this kind of shared interest that he's never experienced before. For all that he's still, quite obviously, an arrogant prat Arthur’s also the only other person Merlin's ever met who knows all the lyrics to Inbetweener off by heart and he's impressed despite himself. Arthur’s suspicious frown gives way to an animated expression and Merlin begins to suspect that the begrudging sense of kinship is mutual.
"Sorry to interrupt the Britpop love fest, but is there any chance of us getting any practice done at all this afternoon?" Morgana demands. "I take it his musical taste meets with your approval, Arthur? Lucky I'm your sister, I'm not sure I'd have managed to jump through quite so many hoops at once. Good call on The Cure, by the way," Morgana adds with a wink. "Welcome to Avalon."
Band practices -- on Wednesday afternoons, Thursday lunchtimes, and whenever else they can be fitted in around lessons and Arthur and Lance's prefect duties -- are a mixture of actual practice and animated discussion-slash-bickering about bands.
Merlin had half thought that Arthur, Morgana and Lance would continue not to acknowledge his existence outside of practice room 3, but to his surprise, they do. Lance is actually pretty friendly, often stopping to chat with Merlin and Gwen. Morgana remains aloof, but then again, she remains fairly aloof from everybody. At least she acknowledges his existence – giving Valiant one more thing to scowl at Merlin about.
The first note he gets in history is fairly practical – Arthur wants to know about his availability for practice times. That's exactly how he phrases it, too, please indicate your availability in the following lunch periods, like it's a fucking official school form. Merlin wonders whether it's on purpose, so if he gets caught he can pretend it's official head boy business and not standard detention-worthy note-passing. He's even done little tick boxes next to the days of the week.
Merlin smirks, ticks them all and then adds a couple of his own:
Do you like me Yes/No surrounded by little flowers and hearts.
He has a brief pang of concern that Arthur will take it seriously, rather than in the mocking spirit in which it is intended, but soon enough the paper is returned, nudging against his knuckles. He unfurls it when the teacher isn't looking to see that Arthur has ticked 'No' and added:
because you're an idiot with the musical taste of a squirrel.
It's not the most creative insult in the world. He writes back:
That the best you can do? I've been called worse things this morning. And by the way, a bit rich coming from someone who likes Bon Jovi.
There's a delay before it's returned, as there's only ten minutes left of the lesson and they're supposed to be answering a practice question on the rebellions of 1549 and to what extent they were examples of local economic uprisings. When it comes though, Arthur has written:
It was one tape, my dad bought it for me and I'm going to kill Morgana for telling you.
How do you know it wasn't Lance? Merlin writes back, smirking although Arthur can't see him.
Sowing the seeds of disruption amongst the band already, Rhys?
You've discovered my secret masterplan, damnit.
He hears Arthur chuckle softly under his breath and turn it swiftly into a cough when the teacher looks in his direction. When his back is turned, though, Arthur tips his chair back and slips one more scrap of paper onto Merlin's desk.
It's either that or trying to lure me to a life of crime, starting with passing notes in lessons. Lance, Morgana and I are going into town after school, you coming?
Merlin stares at it for a full minute, entirely forgetting to be discreet.
Passing notes isn't a crime, prat, he writes back. Yeah, ok. After note-passing, shoplifting and graffiti are clearly the next logical step.
Arthur's neck tenses and he quickly destroys the note. Merlin smothers a snort of laughter behind his hand.
Merlin's got his tie off the second they pass through the school gates.
"Merlin!" Arthur says disapprovingly and Merlin laughs.
"Come on, Arthur! School's out, you can't give me detention now."
"You're still wearing your blazer," Arthur points out.
"Yes," Merlin says, staring at him, "It's October. I'm cold."
"As long as you have anything identifying you as a Camelot Community Student, you're still representing the school, therefore you should be in full, neat uniform."
"Are you quoting some kind of prefect's handbook?"
"No," says Arthur, shrugging his bag up a little higher onto his shoulder.
"Yes," says Lance.
Merlin laughs. "Seriously. Are you for real?"
"No, I'm one of your wet dreams," Arthur says with a twist of his mouth and a rude gesture.
"Worst nightmare, more like," Merlin snorts, untucking his shirt as well. Arthur twitches but doesn't say anything. "I bet you think you're noble King Arthur, valiantly saving the innocent first years from the twin evils of running in corridors and having untucked shirts."
Arthur punches him on the arm.
"Ow! I'm pretty sure your prefect duties don't involve dishing out corporal punishment."
"We're not on school premises."
"But you're still wearing your uniform. Hey, isn't this an abuse of your badge? Some people just shouldn't be given any power, it just goes to their heads. You think you're some big -- "
"Oh I know I am," Arthur replies, making it sound filthy.
Merlin rolls his eyes in response.
"So, Avalon, really?" Merlin ventures to ask as they walk along the main road. Even here, the seagulls are out in force, scavenging for crumbs. It's a little unnerving, a constant reminder that they're by the sea. He still hasn't quite got used to that. "Like the mystical isle?"
"Like the Roxy Music song, dweeb," Arthur pokes him in the side and Merlin yelps, narrowly avoiding going into the road.
"Um, ow? And seriously, who says dweeb anymore, really?"
"People who listen to Roxy Music?" Morgana suggests, deadpan, and Merlin throws his head back and laughs. The afternoon sun is warm on his face and it almost feels like he really is fitting in and making friends after all.
Morgana disappears off into one of those girly shops that sell joss sticks and tie-dyed clothes, the kind you can’t walk into without hitting your head on low-hanging windchimes. Arthur drags Merlin into Our Price and leans over his shoulder as they flip through the CDs in the racks pointing out to each other which ones they own and which they are thinking of getting. Merlin's always felt a strange sense of satisfaction from seeking out the CDs he owns in his own meagre collection, seeing them here amongst the other ones for sale. His thumb rests affectionately on the edge of 1977 as they reach the end of the 'A's.
"Any good?" Arthur wants to know and Merlin nods.
"Yeah. Got it on tape. I'll bring it in tomorrow if you want a listen."
"Cool." Arthur's breath fans his cheek when he speaks. It's unexpectedly intimate, in the narrow confines of the shop, bordered on both sides by the racks of music.
They flick through the racks of CDs, the ABC of musical education, from The Beatles and The Bluetones through Catch and Cast all the way past Sleeper and Space to The Verve and Weezer. Arthur pauses at a Sisters of Mercy and proclaims them as "one of Morgana's", as though the twins have divvied up all the bands in the world between them. Arthur's cross-examination on musical taste was, Merlin's beginning to realise, all Arthur's. It's not that the others aren't committed to the band. As far as he can tell, they are; more that it seems to matter so much more to Arthur. And it gives him a kick in his chest because he's never met anyone who understood just how much it matters to him.
Merlin's eyes flicker to the shop assistant behind the counter, thinking maybe that he'll object to a couple of school kids who have no intention of buying anything putting their hands all over the merchandise, having a debate in the middle of the shop over whether The Great Escape is a better album than Parklife, but he doesn't seem bothered.
Arthur starts on the Stone Roses and how the second album was one of the great disappointments of his whole life. Merlin thinks of his dad, and Will, and having to leave Ealdor and can't quite find a place for it in his personal top 5 of life's biggest disappointments, although he agrees that it isn't really up to the standard of their debut. He's always been one to look for the good in music, though. Music is the one thing that never has let him down when he needed it.
"What about Ten Storey Love Song, though?" he asks, and almost feels his tongue give way on the third word of the title which is silly, because it's not like, well, it's not like anything. Arthur doesn't answer and Merlin says, "I've got it on tape, if you want --" then breaks off, because of course Arthur's got it already, he's already been talking about the bloody album. He feels his cheeks pink with social embarrassment and scowls, but Arthur doesn't seem to notice, his hand clamping down a little roughly on the back of Merlin's neck as he steers him out of the shop.
"Come on, we'd better go see what trouble my sister's gone and gotten herself into."
"Ow," Merlin squirms under his grip, "Was this what happened to your last guitarist? Manhandled to death and buried under the patio?"
Arthur frowns like he doesn't know what he's talking about, then flicks his ear.
"Gwaine left to go to uni," he says with a shrug. "Let's go back to yours."
"What?" Merlin starts at the casual assumption, a rush of feelings quickly following. He's not sure whether to be offended by Arthur's assumptions in inviting himself, pleased that he wants to come, or embarrassed by how cramped his flat is.
"You know, if your parents don't mind."
"It's just my mum," Merlin says, a little nervous. It's not that he's ashamed of her, more the opposite. However much he argues back and complains, she's all he's got and he loves her fiercely. And that must show through, somehow, because it's something bullies have always known to pick at in the past, if they want to rile him. He's suffered through enough sniffy comments from kids or their married parents or even teachers about his lack of a father, enough nasty insinuations when he and his classmates hit puberty about his mum's supposed profession. He'd even punched Will, once, when they were twelve and he'd made what was probably intended as a positive comment about her physical attributes.
Arthur doesn't say anything, though, and Merlin finds himself once again reappraising the first impression he'd formed of Arthur being an utter arse, because he hasn't gone out of his way to be so this afternoon. They find Morgana talking to an older man in a leather jacket. She's stowed her tie and jacket in her bag and undone enough buttons on her shirt to give a glimpse of a lacy black bra. Out of uniform, she could easily be a young professional, just out of the office for a coffee break.
"Oh, Arthur," she says, when she spots them, "I'll see you at home for dinner, ok?"
"Alright," Arthur says. Merlin overhears her telling tall dark and handsome that Arthur is her "baby brother" as they walk off, and stifles a grin behind his hand.
Merlin sort of hopes his mum's not in when they get back. They go in through the side door, bypassing the chip shop just in case Gaius decides to rope him into helping out, even though it's not his evening tonight. He can do without Gaius telling his mum that 'Merlin brought a friend round' as well, so it's with half a breath of relief as well as a small measure of embarrassment that he shows Arthur into the poky flat.
"Which is your room?" Arthur asks, and Merlin shows him.
"Haven't you heard of a cupboard? Or a hoover?" Arthur asks him, picking up the duvet from the floor and dropping it with a faint moue of distaste onto the bed. Merlin shrugs. "Neatness costs nothing, you know." He claps Merlin hard on the shoulder and Merlin thinks it's probably Arthur's blokish, emotionally constipated way of being friendly, so he lets it go.
Arthur doesn't say much after that, but he's nosy, peering at Merlin's posters and poking at the piles of cds that Merlin hasn't yet got round to alphabetising. It feels oddly intimate in the small space, Arthur's fingers running over the edges and corners of his things, just looking at everything. It gives Merlin an indescribable, not altogether unpleasant feeling, like his soul has been bared to Arthur's scrutiny.
"This any good?" Arthur asks, and he's pulled out the first Suede album, the one with the two people kissing on the cover that Merlin thinks are both women, but might be both men and he doesn't know and it makes his cheeks heat a little everytime he sees it.
"Yeah. You don't have it?"
Arthur shakes his head, and there's no confirmation one way or the other, but Merlin thinks it might be that the cover makes him feel the same.
Merlin puts it on his stereo and kicks off his shoes to sit on the bed. Arthur tuts at his untidiness, but eventually sits down next to him.
"You want a drink, or..." Merlin suddenly remembers he ought to at least be polite. It's not like he had friends back a lot, even in Ealdor (except Freya and Will, and there was no standing on ceremony with either of them).
"Nah, you're alright," Arthur says and tips his head back.
They don't talk much, letting the music wash over them. Merlin, feeling reckless in the company of a fellow fan, turns it up a few notches. It sounds better louder, the focus rather than the background, warm and both comforting and unsettling at once. There are things in the lyrics he doesn't completely understand, but sometimes he thinks it's better that way, just the hint at something more, something undiscovered, different, exciting, maybe even a little bit dangerous. The sort of life he might lead if he was a few years older, living in London, perhaps, instead of some shitty coastal town. And at the same time it screams with understanding of his situation, seventeen, not fitting in, trapped and unfulfilled.
Arthur makes a few appreciative comments – while maintaining that they're not as good as Blur, of course – and –
"This is my favourite," Merlin says as the opening bars of The Drowners drift out from the stereo.
Arthur just hums in reply. The CD skips and stutters and Merlin gets up to thump the side of the stereo – a tried and tested method. He settles back down on the bed but he's misjudged it, sitting far closer to Arthur than he had been before, and he can't work out whether moving again now would make it better or worse. Brett Anderson's voice is still the loudest thing in the room although Merlin thinks the nervous thudding in his chest might come a close second. He opens his mouth to say something, ask if Arthur wants the window open, perhaps, since it seems all of a sudden to have gotten a little hot. But Arthur turns towards him at the same time, just as Brett's singing We kiss in his room to a popular tune, and he feels his face flame because he doesn't want Arthur to think that he's thinking that –
But before he can say or do anything, the front door goes with a loud bang that causes the CD to jump and the music to skip once more, and Merlin scrambles off the bed like a shot.
"Merlin, are you in here?" his mum calls.
"Here Mum," he calls back, surprised and a little embarrassed by the croak in his voice.
"You look flushed, dear," she says, "you want to have your window open. Oh, I see you've got company."
"Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Rhys, I'm Arthur," Arthur says, coming from nowhere and offering his hand. She takes it, a little shocked by this sudden charm offensive, Merlin thinks. He's a little stunned himself. "I really must go, my sister's making dinner. See you Monday, yeah?" he calls back to Merlin as he leaves, not waiting for a reply.
"Well," says Merlin's mum, cautiously. "He seems nice."
"We're in a band," Merlin blurts out, because he isn't sure what else to say. He's not even sure he and Arthur are friends, not really. Not yet, anyway. He doesn't quite know how else to explain that one of the most popular boys in school dragged him downtown and then just invited himself over to listen to music in Merlin's bedroom. "He's the head boy." He's not quite sure why he feels the need to add this, because being head boy is, in Merlin's opinion, the least of Arthur's recommendations. He's not quite sure why he feels he needs to recommend Arthur anyway, but he's grateful to be able to add "he might be a good influence on you Merlin," to things his mum doesn't say out loud.
Or maybe, maybe it's our nowhere towns,
Our nothing places and our cellophane sounds
"Get us a Coke, Merlin." Arthur jabs at the side of Merlin's head with his foot. They're at Lance's, ostensibly for band practice, but so far most of the time has been spent bickering, playing Goldeneye on the N64 and excessive caffeine consumption.
"Ew, get your sweaty hooves out of my face, you weirdo."
"Get us a Coke, then."
"What did your last slave die of?" Merlin grumbles, but he gets up anyway. It's become sort of a pattern – Merlin complains and insults Arthur on a fairly regular basis, but also seems to find himself doing whatever the prat asks far more often than he'd like to admit. It's possible Arthur's attempts at abusing their new friendship is some kind of weird band initiation ritual; once after Merlin had been feeling a little put out after a particularly forceful headlock, Lance had told him that when he'd first met Arthur, he'd been horrid to him, hitting him repeatedly with a stick and making him carry his football boots around. Then again, they'd been ten years old, so it's not exactly comparable.
Merlin is shit at Goldeneye, anyway. His fingers are fast on the buttons, but his sense of direction is hopeless, and the mindless pursuit of killing things on a screen isn't his preferred way of spending his free time. He doesn't pick up the controller when he gets back from the kitchen, biting down an evil grin that would make Morgana proud when Arthur's Coke fizzes up as he opens it, splashing down his blue and white plaid shirt. Arthur swears rather creatively at Merlin as he peels the stained shirt off, before resuming the game in the baggy white t-shirt he had on underneath.
It's taken a bit of getting used to, seeing them all out of uniform. Morgana has a line in floor length skirts and indecently low cut tops, most of them black velvet. Merlin smirks as he thinks how much that dickhead Valiant would envy him his current view. Merlin gives Morgana's chest no more than a cursory glance, however. Arthur's out of school clothes are almost a second uniform – neat, straight legged jeans and a variety of checked shirts, invariably worn over a plain white t-shirt. His hair falls into his eyes and he sweeps it out of the way as he frowns at the screen in concentration, focussing on his next kill.
Merlin picks up his guitar and starts tweaking the tuning, the single notes a little flat, at odds with the sound from the telly.
"Yes!" Morgana's fist pumps into the air while Lance and Arthur groan theatrically, throwing their controllers down.
"It's all your fault, Merlin, you broke my concentration!" Arthur complains.
"Yeah, yeah," Merlin shoots back, "As if you would have won anyway. You're just looking for excuses because you got beaten by a girl. Again."
"He's right, mate," Lance says, flexing his fingers, "Morgana's unstoppable when she's got knives."
"Rematch," Arthur demands. "Golden gun."
"I thought we were going to practice," Merlin says, strumming idly. Arthur looks at him, head cocked to one side as he listens.
"What's that? Don't recognise it."
"Oh," Merlin's caught out. He wasn't trying to call attention to his song, but he can't really back out now. "It's, um. It's one of mine."
"You're serious about this writing our own songs lark, aren't you?"
"Aren't you? You want to be like every other sixth form band out there who plays half-decent indie covers? Don't you think we've got more to offer?"
"Dreaming of indie stardom, Merlin?" Morgana's lips twitch slightly, but she's not actually laughing at him and telling him to sod off. None of them are.
"I just think we're better than that," Merlin insists. "I mean, even that fifth form band with the kid with the hair in Practice Room 2 can do a passable Live Forever."
"The three chord wonder," Arthur snorts. "Go on then, let's hear it."
Merlin feels himself blush to the tips of his ears, but he plays it anyway. It's one of his better efforts, he thinks, something he came up with that first, lonely week in Camelot, down by the sea. He lalala's along to give them an idea of the melody. His face is on fire by the time he's done. His songs are something weirdly private, and while he has, of course, daydreamed about playing Reading Festival, getting his demo picked up by Steve Lamacq on Radio One, being interviewed by NME, the reality of actually performing his song to other people makes him feel startlingly exposed.
"No lyrics?" Arthur says with a quirk of his eyebrow.
"I don't... lyrics aren't really my thing."
"Ok, 'cause I think I've got something that might..." Merlin doesn't think he's ever really seen Arthur tongue-tied before, not even on their first antagonistic encounter. He rummages in his bag to retrieve a neat black notebook filled with loose sheets of paper while Morgana improvises a bass line to complement the chord progression and Lance drums out a rhythm on the coffee table. From the look of it, the coffee table's been used as a makeshift drum kit more than once before.
Arthur's lyrics aren't perfect: a little too earnest, perhaps, missing the ease and flow that would make them seem effortless, but he's got a knack with rhyming that Merlin himself doesn’t. The best ones are the least specific, some vaguely romantic sentiments, some non-specific angst. Morgana teases him a little. The name 'Vivian' makes an appearance, not for the first time in the back and forth between brother and sister, and Merlin bites his lip, wanting to know more but not quite daring to ask.
He's lacking a little in the sort of life-experience that would give his lyrics a bit more range and authenticity, Merlin thinks, and doesn't hesitate to say so, even if the slightly puzzled, wounded look on Arthur's face makes him feel a little guilty for it. There's the sheen of potential, though, definitely, and when he sings, when he sings, he transforms even the blandest of words on the page into something that sends a shiver down Merlin's spine.
Merlin's talking to Gwen at the end of the day about uni applications. She wants to go to Exeter, not too far from home and her dad, but Merlin's got his heart set on London – the gigs, the people, the opportunities. Arthur of course has already sent in his application to Cambridge.
"Speak of the devil," Merlin says as Arthur saunters over and claps him on the shoulder, too hard as usual.
"Jesus, Arthur, no wonder most of your mates have no brain cells left."
"I hope you're not casting aspersions on your fellow band mates, Merlin. Morgana wouldn't take too kindly to it." He grins amiably at Gwen, with his arm still slung around Merlin's neck. Gwen blinks at him as though she's not quite sure how to respond to this sudden attention. Merlin doubts Arthur has so much as given her the time of day in the past six years.
"Morgana's frighteningly clever and I'd like to see you so much as try to lay a finger on her."
"I haven't tried since we were nine," Arthur admits.
"I bet she used to beat you up when you were kids, didn't she?" Merlin grins.
"We have a pact of mutual non-aggression," Arthur says primly.
"Yeah, she can totally kick your arse," Merlin says. "And not just in Goldeneye."
"Are you coming, or what? Our house," Arthur reminds him when Merlin hesitates. "You don't have work, do you?"
"I have homework. And so do you. We're supposed to hand in that summary of King Lear by Thursday." Somehow there's been a role reversal and Merlin is the one worrying about rules and deadlines while Arthur shrugs them off. Arthur has a look rather like that of an excited puppy, though, and it's almost impossible to say no to him.
"Come on, Merlin," half mocking, half entreating, "It's not like that'll take more than about half an hour." Maybe not for you, Merlin wants to say, with an unexpected flare of resentment, because everything comes so easily to Arthur, doesn't it?
"I'll drop you off home after," Arthur offers, and Merlin gives in, again.
Gwen waves and mouths 'Bye Merlin' as Arthur drags him off.
Arthur and Morgana's house is stupidly big. It has gates. Gates. Arthur shuffles his feet in the leaves on the floor (the ones the gardener hasn't swept up yet, and Merlin still can't quite get over the fact that they have a fucking gardener) while they wait for the gates to open.
"Who are you, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?" Merlin asks, when he gets his voice back.
"Shut up, chip shop boy." Arthur punches him in the arm.
"Whatever," Merlin says, and starts singing, "In West Philadelphia, born and raised..." while Arthur chases him down the long gravel driveway.
He calls Arthur 'Fresh Prince’ and 'your highness' for the rest of the evening.
There are two living rooms. One has pristine cream sofas and carpet, decorated with an assortment of very fragile, very expensive looking large china vases and glass sculptures, and is, Arthur informs him, for company. Merlin, as a friend of Arthur's, seventeen and possessed of size ten feet and pointy elbows, does not constitute 'company' and is quickly ushered past to a back sitting room with two large blue sofas, a big telly with a VCR, an N64 and a Playstation.
"Want some crisps?" Arthur asks. Merlin nods and follows him into his stupidly big kitchen with its stupidly big fridge. He's mildly surprised to find that Arthur was serious about helping him with his summary, and even more surprised to find that it doesn't take as long as he'd feared, Arthur's presence not as much of a distraction as he'd imagined, even though they stop to chat and bicker and steal one another's crisps. In fact, they get more done than they do in lessons with their constant back and forth passing notes, all their daft little games. Not that they've stopped with any of that, really, it's just a good deal quicker when you don't have to write everything down.
Morgana turns up at about five. There's a screech of tyres on the gravel driveway and Merlin follows Arthur to the window in time to see a blue Ford Escort pulling away.
"Who the fuck was that?" Arthur demands, the second she gets through the door. Merlin remembers tall dark and handsome from the shopping centre and thinks he has a good idea. She's not wearing her blazer or her tie, despite the chill in the air.
"My ride," she says, with a twist of her lips.
"Don't pull that shit with me, Morg," her brother warns. "You turn up here with some dodgy bloke..."
"Jesus, Arthur! Dodgy?"
"He drives a Ford Escort!" Arthur protests, helplessly.
"Oh, so this is just snobbery, is it?" Her eyes narrow.
"No. No! I'm just looking out for you, alright? You get in a car with some stranger --"
"He's not a stranger. His name's Helios. I missed my bus and he kindly gave me a lift. I have my pepper spray in my bag. Thanks for your concern." She sweeps past the two of them and into one of the many bathrooms.
"Hilary one, Fresh Prince nil," Merlin says, ducking out of the way of Arthur's inevitable retaliation.
Nothing more on the subject of Morgana's lift home is said, and Merlin and Arthur strike up a game of 'next lines', King Lear all but forgotten, which passes the time until Merlin winds Arthur up by singing Lives in a house a very big house in the country, with particular emphasis on the first part of the final word and Arthur flicks a pencil in his face.
It's Morgana who offers Merlin dinner, chastising Arthur for being a bad host as she does so.
"I'd better phone my mum and let her know I'll be back late," Merlin says, daring Arthur to make a comment with a tilt of his chin. He doesn't. "Your dad doesn't eat with you?" Merlin asks, confused, as Morgana lays the table for three.
"No, he's at the office until late, again," Morgana shrugs. "Fortunately, I'm an excellent cook."
"Well, just don't expect me to ever return the favour," Merlin replies, "I'd probably poison you."
"Merlin, you live over a chip shop," Arthur reminds him. "Why on earth would you ever need to cook? Come on, let's go over the new song."
Merlin gets out his guitar and they practise the song they've tentatively titled The Secret Sharer, working on the second verse. Somehow, the words wrap themselves around the melody – or is it the other way around? They fit together, anyway, as though they had been written for one another.
"So, Merlin," Morgana says, almost as soon as they sit down at the table, fixing him with a stare which is almost predatory. Merlin is mildly alarmed. "Leon's party next week."
"Uh, is it?" He hasn't been invited, naturally. He isn't even completely sure who Leon is, but he thinks it's the tall one with the beard, who buys everyone else's booze for them.
"Yep. His eighteenth."
"Are you going?"
"I'm not sure I'm invited..."
"Phht," Morgana waves a hand. "Of course you are." Merlin decides her hand signal must be code for 'you hang out with us now so you must be cool'. He's not quite sure whether to feel privileged or patronised.
"What were you waiting for, an engraved invitation? RSVP?" Arthur teases, poking him with his foot under the table. Merlin pokes back.
"No, I just, I didn't think..." He doesn't quite know how to explain that people don't invite him to things. Ever. "I didn't want to presume."
"Everyone will be there," Morgana says. Then, turning to her brother with a mischievous sparkle in her eye. "I imagine Vivian will be there, don't you think, Arthur?"
"I don't know," Arthur says. He doesn't blush or stammer, but now that he knows what to look for, Merlin can read embarrassment in the set of his jaw, the way he reaches for his glass to take a longer-than-usual sip of coke.
"I heard she told Elena she wants to get back together with you," Morgana says.
Merlin feels a sudden sharp pang in his stomach and is at a loss to explain it.
"Shut up, witch," Arthur says with a scowl at his sister. "We used to go out," he explains with a shrug.
"It's only a matter of time before they get back together. I heard there's bets being taken." Morgana tips her glass in Merlin's direction. Merlin takes a bite of his chicken to save himself from having to answer. He feels all of a sudden every inch the interloper, without a grasp on the lives and loves of his new friends. But then Morgana turns her attention on him. "What about you, Merlin?
He almost chokes on his mouthful of chicken.
"What about me?"
"Are you going with anyone? Come on, there must be someone you've got your eye on."
Startled, Merlin looks up, and finds his eyes meet Arthur's. He looks away, awkwardly.
"Oh, well, I... uh... I hadn't really thought about it."
"Or did you leave someone behind in your old town?" She smiles and Merlin feels sick because he did leave someone behind in Ealdor, but not in the way she's thinking.
"What about that girl you were talking to after school today?" Arthur says, his tone level, disinterested.
"Gwen?" Merlin swallows. "She's not – I mean, we're just friends." Because they are. And he really can't imagine anything more, not with her. She's nice, really she is, but there isn't that spark between them, that connection, not like –
"Gwen, oh she's lovely. The two of you would make such a cute couple."
"I really don't think we --"
"Why, is there another girl you're interested in?" Morgana's eyes are too sharp, like they might see through him and Merlin's gaze drops to his plate, wishing she'd just drop it.
"No," he says quietly, and it's the truth (but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth).
Merlin shivers as they step out of the front door.
"Wait here," Arthur says, "I'll bring the car round."
"What, you don't have a butler or something to do that for you?" Merlin teases, and Arthur sticks two fingers up at him as he jogs off round the corner.
Not two minutes later, Merlin is all but doubled up in laughter as a battered VW Golf pulls up.
"This?" Merlin snorts incredulously as he opens the passenger door and jumps inside. It's colder on the inside, although Arthur's got the heating whacked right up, and he rubs his hands together for warmth.
"Well, after what you said to Morgana earlier, I was expecting... Didn't Daddy buy you an Audi?"
"I bought this myself, with money I earned, actually, Merlin."
"Look after the pounds and the billions'll look after themselves, huh?"
“Something like that.”
The engine stutters as they speed out of the gates and onto the road, while Merlin pokes around in the glovebox. He pulls out a cassette, the tracklisting meticulously copied onto the inlay card in Arthur's small, impossibly neat handwriting. He slips it into the player and fiddles with the volume dial; louder is always better, in his opinion. There's something almost unbearably personal about someone else's compilation tape, more even than their record collection. The songs chosen, the order they appear in, can say so much about someone.
Arthur takes corners too fast. Their breaths fog up the window of the still-cold Golf, and Arthur winds his window down. Merlin follows suit, liking the way the melody is set free into the night air. The street lights blink past as Morrissey sings about never, never wanting to go home.
Arthur pulls up outside the chip shop, engine still running and music still blaring out. Merlin scrambles out of the car, almost landing in a heap on the cobbles outside.
"Wait," Arthur calls, and Merlin turns back too quickly, smacking his head on the side of the car.
"Idiot." Arthur ejects the tape. "Go on, take it with you. There might be some stuff you haven't got already."
"Cheers," is all Merlin can say, fingers numb as he fumbles the tape back into its box.
Up in his room, Merlin slips the tape into his walkman and stares at the ceiling while The Buzzcocks want to know whether he's ever fallen in love with someone he shouldn't've.
Morgana hasn't forgotten about their conversation over dinner, dropping none-too-subtle hints about dates and parties and deadlines until Merlin feels a little queasy. He can't even look at Gwen without breaking into a nervous sweat.
It's ridiculous, this whole thing. This is what his year eight PSE teacher would have called 'peer pressure'. He'd really sort of hoped that maybe one day he would like a girl enough to want to ask her out. Gwen is... nice, she's nice, but there's not the spark of connection there that he'd always imagined. Just because she's a girl and he likes spending time with her doesn't automatically mean they need to be paired off, he thinks, a little resentfully.
There's a loud guffaw from the corner of the common room where Percy and Leon and a couple of other lads are sat. Merlin looks over to see them pointing at something in a magazine. He rolls his eyes, assuming at first that they've got hold of a porn mag, but he sees as Percy holds it up for the benefit of a newcomer that it's actually Just Seventeen. Clearly, it's been nicked off one of the girls in lower school. Or perhaps been confiscated by an overly officious prefect, he thinks with a quick glance at Arthur. Merlin doesn't know a lot about girls' magazines, but he knows enough to know that nobody who's actually seventeen ever reads it.
"Dear Sally," Percy reads, affecting a high-pitched voice, "I'm in love with my best friend's boyfriend, what should I do? Claire from Brighton."
"Ask her mate if she's up for a threesome," Valiant chips in. Lance tuts audibly, shaking his head.
"'Dear Claire'," Percy continues, a different silly voice this time, "'Friends are more important than boys--'"
"Hang on," Merlin interrupts, "That's a bit sexist, isn't it? Boys and girls can be friends."
"Haven't you seen 'When Harry Met Sally'?" Gwen teases, and Merlin feels his palms sweat a little. Does she want more than friendship from him? Has he somehow given her the impression that he does?
"Yeah," chimes in Leon, "Meg Ryan, phwoar!" and he and another boy proceed to act out the notorious restaurant scene from that movie until Percy thumps one of them on the arm and Morgana pokes the other with her shoe.
"Here," says Valiant, "Look at this one, 'Dear Sally, I am a boy and I have feelings for another boy in my class.' Ugh, that's so queer!"
"Gross," agrees the boy next to him.
Merlin makes the fatal mistake of shifting uncomfortably in his chair, which is enough to catch Valiant's attention.
"Bet it was you, weren't it, Rhys?"
"Fuck off," Merlin says, not missing a beat. "I'm not the one reading a girls' magazine."
This gets a laugh, at least, and the subject is dropped along with the magazine. Merlin feels his heart skitter within his chest, though, long after the incident's been forgotten by everyone else, and he knows he has to do something.
Morgana's out to get him on this and the only other people he really talks to are Gwen and Arthur. Talking to Gwen is the whole problem and he can't quite bring himself to bring this up with Arthur. The mere thought of Arthur coming over all wingman, punching his shoulder and making blokish jokes about pulling girls makes the anxious twist in his stomach about ten times worse. That leaves only one option, really.
"Lance, you have to help me," Merlin says, cornering him after his last lesson.
"What is it?"
"Morgana," Merlin sighs, slumping into a chair. They've got a good half hour yet until the cleaners turf them out, so Lance sits down opposite.
"Ah. Do you, um, like her?" Lance asks, a little hesitantly.
"Well, yeah, she's --" Merlin stops as he obviously cottons on to the emphasis in Lance's voice and shakes his head violently, backtracking. "No no no, not like that. Definitely not. No, it's Gwen."
"Gwen? You like Gwen?"
"No. I mean, yeah. Sort of." Merlin sinks his chin onto his knees. "If I don't ask her out by Friday Morgana's going to do horrible but as yet unspecified things to me which will almost certainly involve public humiliation to some degree. So you see, you have to help me."
"How can I help, exactly?"
"Well, I don't know the first thing about asking a girl out so I thought you might, um, do it for me?" The last words are accompanied by a nervous grin.
"What makes you think I know the first thing about it?" Lance asks with a frown. "And why me, and not Arthur?"
"Well, it doesn't matter so much if you're not asking for yourself, does it? If she says no, you just tell me, and nobody's too embarrassed." Merlin shrugs. "And as for Arthur, can you imagine how much he'd take the piss if I asked him?"
"Well, now that you mention it, yes," Lance says with the beginnings of a smile. "What makes you think I won't?"
"Please, Lance, I'll owe you a massive favour."
It seems to take forever, but Lance nods, at last, and Merlin reaches across to clap him on the arm, hissing his thanks with a relieved breath.
"Thanks mate, you're a lifesaver. You know which one she is, right?"
"Yeah. Dark hair, sort of clumsy. Not sure I've spoken two words to her since year nine, but I know who she is." Lance looks round to where a group of girls, Gwen among them are collecting their things together, getting ready to go home.
Lance gets to his feet a bit reluctantly and walks over towards the group, making a beeline for Gwen. Watching him, Merlin can't help but be reminded of nature programmes -- the hunter going after the gazelle at the back of the herd, and feels a little ashamed. He probably should at least have had the decency to do this himself.
He can't hear what they're saying, but Gwen doesn't look disgusted or outraged. In fact, she gives a quick, shy smile in his direction and Merlin quickly ducks his head, pretending to be absorbed in his copy of King Lear.
Lance comes back with a furrowed brow.
"Well?" Merlin demands.
"She said yes," Lance tells him.
"Thanks mate. I owe you one."
"I think you do, Merlin," Lance says in an odd tone of voice.
It's funny, Merlin’s always imagined that agreeing to go out with someone would bring you closer to them, but it only seems that he and Gwen have grown more distant. There's awkwardness, now, in the common room, where before there was tentative friendship. He doesn't know what she expects of him or what he should expect from her. They're on fairly shaky ground anyway – she's agreed to go to the party with him, does that mean she's his girlfriend? Should he sit next to her? Offer to carry her bag? Kiss her goodbye? There's a fine line, he thinks, between things that are expected of him and things that would get him roundly slapped and he doesn't know quite where the line begins and ends.
If he had a list of reasons why he doesn't do this, he could probably add about sixteen straight off. But he doesn't have a list for this, not even in his head, because of reasons he doesn't want to examine too closely.
Arthur, Morgana and Lance announce their plans of going into town at lunch to get food from Safeway. Merlin invites Gwen to tag along, considering that having lunch with her in the refectory will be a minefield of dating mistakes to avoid. The sky is ominously grey, and it's odds on whether it will piss it down on them before they get back to school. Merlin makes this observation to Gwen, in slightly more polite language, and follows it up with a swift mental kicking. The weather, really, is that the best he can do?
"So, um, what kind of music do you like, then?" Merlin ventures.
"Oh, um, I don't know, mainly chart music, I suppose," Gwen replies. Merlin tries really hard not to make a face like she just said she enjoys kicking puppies in her spare time but it's not easy. "You know, Oasis, and, um that sort of thing." It's a partial save, but still disappointingly mainstream.
He's always felt, all his life, like he's somehow different. He never quite knew why, nor did the kids who picked on him, he reckons, but he felt it and they could clearly spot it from a mile off. When he was little he used to imagine he could do magic, like Matilda. Or the original Merlin. He'd spend hours staring at objects and willing them to levitate but with little success. He can't quite imagine how you could be close to someone, really close to someone, who didn't appreciate music the same way. It would be like someone with magic trying to date someone who didn't believe in it.
They proceed in silence for a while – even the normally garrulous Gwen seeming stumped – until Lance engages her in conversation and Merlin heaves a silent sigh of relief.
Where the path narrows and they can only walk two abreast, he finds himself next to Arthur, who bombards him with a series of questions about bands with girl singers and whether Louise Wener is or is not fitter than Lauren Laverne (Merlin doesn't have an answer to that) and whether Kenickie are alright or not (to which Merlin's answer is decidedly not). In response to this Arthur decides to bug him for the rest of the walk into town by shouting P-U-N-K-A in a terrible approximation of a Geordie accent extremely loud right in his ear.
"Give us a crisp, then," Arthur says when they come out of the shop.
"There is such a word as 'please', ever heard of it?"
"Nope. Gimme." Arthur holds out his hand and Merlin reluctantly holds out the bag. Instead of taking one or two crisps, though, Arthur nicks the entire packet and Merlin is forced to chase down the road after him.
"Give it back you knob, it's not like you can't afford your own crisps."
"Make me." Arthur dangles the packet over his head. The flaw in his plan, of course, is that Merlin is taller than he is and it's not hard to grab them back, even though he has to prise Arthur's fingers off the packet one by one.
"Ha," he yells, as he liberates the crisps. Arthur mock pouts and swats him across the head. Merlin takes a single crisp from the packet and holds it out. Arthur opens his mouth and Merlin drops it in. "Idiot," he says.
Merlin's grinning, carefree, until it hits him like a sack of bricks in the chest that this, this is more, much more, like he's always imagined it would be like with someone you...
He cuts that thought off before it can go any further.
Merlin's not entirely sure what to wear. It's not like he ever really got invited to parties much back in Ealdor, sneaking a couple of cans of Will's step-dad's beer out the back of his house doesn't exactly count, and since – well. He pulls on his best pair of jeans and frowns briefly at his reflection in the mirror, wondering what Arthur would wear before shaking his head at himself for being such a girl and grabbing a plain blue shirt from his wardrobe. He sprays himself liberally with Lynx and spends some time applying gel to his hair before changing his mind and washing it all out again. He shaves as carefully as he can, nicking himself once and swearing as he dabs the spot with toilet paper. He brushes his teeth thoroughly and takes a swig of Listerine, trying not to think too hard about whether Gwen is going to expect him to kiss her.
He stows the four pack of lager he bought after school (tie and blazer off, no identifying school insignia, since none of the local shops will sell alcohol to anyone in school uniform, ID or no ID) in his rucksack. He pauses in the hallway for a minute, deliberating between his black school shoes and his trainers. He picks the latter, crouching down to tie his laces and hoping that he gets out the door before his mother tells him to be back by midnight or worse, tries to give him condoms. It's only happened the once, but it left a bit of a mental scar. He's never quite found the words to tell her he's socially awkward and virginal and fairly ok with that, thanks very much.
The distinctive horn of Arthur's Golf sounds from out in the street and Merlin nearly trips down the stairs as he hurries out. Lance is in the car already, he steps out to let Merlin climb across into the back. Merlin greets them both with a quick, grunted, "Alright?" going for casual, matey and not socially-awkward in the slightest, and feeling a little silly when Arthur turns to give him a blinding smile and a friendly,
"Where's Morgana?" Merlin asks.
"Date," Arthur says tersely, and Merlin doesn't have to ask to know that it's the bloke from the shopping centre, the one Arthur has taken it into his head to disapprove of. Privately, Merlin’s pretty sure Arthur was always going to disapprove of anyone who went out with his sister, but he listens to Arthur's insinuations and vague threats without a murmur.
Merlin's still fumbling with his seatbelt as they speed round the corner. He's pretty sure Arthur's driving like this just to annoy him, if the way he looks over his shoulder at him (and why isn't he keeping his eyes on the road, for fuck's sake?) is anything to go by. Lance tuts at him, though, and Arthur slows down a tad.
Merlin's knees go a bit funny as they stop outside Gwen's. They've barely spoken at school since Wednesday afternoon. It's depressingly formal, like marking your dance card for someone in the nineteenth century. She probably does expect him to kiss her, Merlin decides, his mouth suddenly dry. He'd always hoped his first kiss would be something a little more spontaneous and heartfelt. A little more wanted.
Arthur goes to beep the horn, but Lance calls out to stop him.
"I'll go, it'll be easier," Lance says. Merlin sits back, a little relieved and not bothering to hide it. The car is silent, no mix tape today. He can hear his own too-loud breathing over the sound of the idling engine. He waits for a jokey comment from Arthur, but he doesn't say anything. Merlin thinks he can feel Arthur's eyes on him, watching him through the rear-view mirror and it makes his skin feel hot and prickly.
The door opens, loud and jarring, a rush of cold air and the sudden floral scent of perfume. Lance, ever the gentleman, pushes the seat forward and climbs in the back with Merlin, leaving the front to Gwen. She's wearing a short skirt and a blue top that slips off her shoulders. Her hair looks different, hairsprayed to within an inch of its life. Awkward 'hello's are exchanged before the engine roars into life; Arthur's driving pace notably less suicidal with a girl passenger in the car.
Merlin’s eyes meet Arthur's as the sound of the Spice Girls of all bloody things hits them as Leon opens the door. Arthur grimaces sympathetically then promptly disappears. Merlin picks his way through chatting huddles of teenagers towards the kitchen. He deposits his bag on the counter with everyone else's, tries the fridge but it's rammed full already, so resigns himself to warm beer. He makes short work of the first can and has his hand curled around the second already before deciding to head out in search of his friends.
The Spice Girls are silenced, replaced quickly by Oasis extolling the virtues of cigarettes and alcohol. Arthur appears, can of lager in hand and a knowing grin on his face. Merlin realises who was responsible for the change in audio and feels a flush of admiration.
"Best I could manage out of Leon's shit CD collection," he says with a shrug. "It's this or the Trainspotting soundtrack."
"We should bring our own next time," Merlin says.
"No chance," Arthur shakes his head, "I'm not having my stuff scratched, nicked or vomited on."
"Good point." Merlin takes another sip of his drink. "Bet it gets changed again any second, though."
"We'll just have to stay here and guard it, then," Arthur smiles and Merlin is pretty much helpless to do anything but stay, smiling back.
A boy Merlin doesn't recognise walks by and nods at Arthur, who lifts his can in a salute. Merlin feels a little foolish, clinging to Arthur like this. Is that what Arthur thinks, that he's just tagging along? Maybe he'd rather be hanging out with someone cooler, trying to pull one of the girls here. But Arthur seems perfectly content to stay here with him in the corner. It’s something that’s perplexed Merlin since that first Wednesday afternoon -- just why Arthur seems to want to hang around with him so much, when he could take his pick of friends and hangers-on. Merlin's unfortunately no stranger to the insidious kind of meanness kids are capable of, pretending to be your friend in public then kneeing you in the bollocks and nicking your tuck money when no-one’s looking, but Arthur really doesn't seem the type.
He's not the twat Merlin had assumed he was after their first couple of encounters. He's a little stuck-up, perhaps, but he's a good bloke, fun to be around and he's – well. Merlin can't seem to help looking at him, his hair shining under the lights, the way his Adam's apple bobs when he swallows his beer, his lips. He – what is he thinking? He likes Arthur, he admires him, wants to be his friend. And it might be the beer, but Arthur seems to like him too. He keeps looking at him, sometimes, like he, like...
Merlin finds himself swaying into Arthur just a little.
"Woah," Arthur says, one hand on his shoulder to steady him. "How much have you had, exactly?"
"One and a half," Merlin says, frowning at the can in his hand.
"One and a half what, crates?" Arthur smirks. "You're such a lightweight."
"M’not," Merlin protests, drawing himself up to his full height. Because he can't quite articulate that it's not the alcohol that's got him all giddy. Arthur is looking at him with a curl of his lips that can only be described as fond, and... "Arthur," he begins, not quite sure where he's going with it but enjoying the feel of Arthur's name on his lips. "Look, I --"
"Gwen!" Arthur says suddenly, and Merlin jerks back, jarred by this sudden shift in conversation.
"Exactly! She's your date, Merlin, you can't just lose track of her, some other guy might swoop in."
"Oh. Yes, I suppose." He feels a bit sick. Nerves, it had to be. Like when you get sick before exams. Arthur gives him a bit of a shove, and Merlin stumbles as he steps forward, trying to avoid the entwined legs of the couple snogging on the sofa who really ought to come up for air at some point.
He heads for the kitchen and Gwen's there, a bottle of Hooch in hand, breaking off her conversation with Lance as she spots him.
"Alright," he greets them both with a sheepish grin. The music stops and when it starts up again it's the bloody Macarena. He rolls his eyes. "Bloody brilliant."
"Aw, come on, Merlin," Gwen says, "it's a party, you can't have depressing indie music all night. People want to dance to something cheerful."
"What we had on before was cheerful," Merlin says, "This sort of shit's just depressing."
"I don't see what's so cheerful about parties anyway," Lance remarks, "watching a bunch of people get pissed and get off with each other and throw up."
"You could try joining in," Gwen says, tone light and teasing. Lance stiffens visibly, then looks over at Merlin, his expression unreadable, and excuses himself. There's a boy in the corner raiding the fridge and a giggling couple he barely recognises from school who are attacking a packet of crisps in a way that suggests they might be smoking something a little stronger than tobacco.
A couple of lads in search of beer push past, and Merlin has to press closer to Gwen to avoid getting barrelled into. She looks up at him, a little shyly, biting her lip, and one of the lads – Merlin thinks it might be Percy – shouts,
"Go on, son, get in there," and gives him a shove that sends him flying forward, knocking into Gwen.
"Sorry," he says automatically, drawing back, his ears pinking, "I didn't spill..."
"No, no, it's fine," Gwen says, flustered, "I. Um. I didn't mind."
And then it's all happening far too fast, she leans in and kisses him quickly on the lips. He doesn't even know what to do with his hands, flailing a little bit. There are a few whistles and shouts from Percy and his mates as they cotton on to what's going on, sounding oddly distant. Gwen slides her tongue into Merlin's mouth, already half open from surprise. It's wet and a little bit slimy and she tastes like Hooch and oh god he just can't do this. He draws back, wincing at the smacking sound as their mouths pull apart.
"I'm sorry," he says, voice little more than a high-pitched squeak, "I can't. It's not you, I just..."
He runs through potential acceptable excuses in his head, I can't, I'm really an alien from another planet; I can't, I'm suffering from an incurable infectious disease; I can't, I'm in love with someone else; I can't, I'm gay...
"Oh God," is all he can manage before turning and fleeing to the bathroom, locking the door quickly behind him and resting his head against it in shame and embarrassment.
At least, Merlin thinks, when he's splashed a bit of water on his burning cheeks and composed himself enough to venture back out again, the evening can't get any worse.
He avoids the kitchen, even though he could really, really do with another drink. Do You Remember the First Time is playing in the lounge and Merlin heads over to look for Arthur, to tell him, "hey, it's Pulp!" Even though Arthur is probably the one who put it on; nobody else would –
Merlin stops dead in the doorway between the lounge and the dining room, causing someone to walk into the back of him, sloshing beer over his back. Merlin barely hears the swearing though, or notices the sticky liquid seeping through his shirt.
He watches, unable to look away as he sees Gwen slide her hand up to cup Arthur's jaw, sees Arthur's goofy sort of smile as he leans in and presses his lips to hers. It's like a short sharp stab, right between the ribs. He curls one hand against the door frame, feeling a little light headed, noting how sickeningly perfect they look together. Gwen and Arthur.
Arthur looks up, then, his eyes locking with Merlin's for an instant, before he lowers his gaze again.
Jesus it must be great to be straight, Jarvis from Pulp points out.
Merlin jolts as he feels a hand land on his shoulder. It's Lance, his face dark with disapproval, visibly bristling on Merlin's behalf. Merlin shakes his head, unable to explain that this is all his fault, there's been no betrayal. That what has him sick to his stomach is his own bloody stupidity. He turns away and heads back to the kitchen, grabbing the nearest available drink, past caring whether it's one of his and downs the lot. It's not that he thinks things will become perversely clearer through an alcoholic haze, it's rather that things are all too painfully clear at the moment. He's spent the past however many weeks denying these feelings for Arthur, pretending he merely admires him, wants to be his friend. Pretending he likes Gwen in that way, when they could have been good friends. He's not quite sure how he managed to fool anyone else, let alone himself.
He's gone and fallen arse over tit for the stupid prat and now everything's messed up.
"He's a wanker," Lance says, almost apologetically, like he's known all along that Arthur was a wanker and should have warned him more diligently.
"No," Merlin starts, because Arthur doesn't know about his feelings for him – hell, Merlin only really, properly clued onto them in the last ten minutes. But then the words die on his lips as he remembers that as far as Arthur knows, Merlin fancies Gwen. And yet there he is, trying to suck her face off in the next room. That's how much of a shit Arthur gives about him, Merlin realises, with a sudden chill.
Lance starts up about a 'code' between friends, and especially bandmates; how you don't get off with your mates' girlfriends or ex-girlfriends, or soon-to-be-girlfriends, or sisters. He's all earnest and chivalric, so Merlin resists the temptation to point out that he's pretty sure he's heard that particular little speech on Friends.
”We spend our money on guitars,
Write songs about our broken hearts.”
The Wannadies - Might Be Stars
Merlin spends Saturday morning in his pyjamas staring glumly at Live and Kicking. It's not really worth watching now that John Barrowman's not in it anymore, and the kids on the phone-ins squealing about winning crap prizes are doing his head in. When his mum comes in and chides him for sitting around and moping, he figures he might as well do as she says and goes down to the chip shop. He scrapes viciously at the grease on the grill, picturing Arthur's stupid beautiful face as he does it. Cedric clocks the scowl on his face and doesn't even give him any grief, while George the Saturday boy is impressed by his unusual efficiency. Gaius sends him out the back to cut up lettuce after the lunchtime rush, though, because "that surly mug is frightening the customers".
School on Monday is a frosty affair. He's not talking to Arthur, and nor is Lance, who is blatantly taking Merlin's side in this. Arthur and Gwen are giving each other embarrassed 'let's never speak of this again' looks, while Morgana glares at all of them suspiciously. Gwen doesn't even try to talk to Merlin, from which he surmises she's still sore about the whole humiliating public rejection thing, and he doesn't know how to even begin to explain (even though he's pinned down the right answer now and it would only take four words, five syllables: "Sorry, Gwen, I'm gay.")
The thing is, it's not like the party was the scene of some kind of big gay epiphany. He's always known he's attracted to blokes; there's that longstanding crush on John Barrowman for one thing, and he always knew there was more truth in the names he was called back in Ealdor than he ever let on. Really, he should thank Gwen for her part in his realisation that he doesn't like girls at all. Somehow he doesn't think that would go down too well. So it's really not that that has him all tied up in knots, but how quickly he let Arthur become the centre of his pathetic little universe, how much his stupid unrequited crush hurts and how much he hates himself for still harbouring a crush even after everything.
Days that were previously filled with hanging out with Arthur, going into town at lunch, hanging around after school, playing Goldeneye and mucking about are now dedicated to songwriting. It's a good job, Merlin thinks as he glances at the high proportion of minor keys represented in the scribbled tablature in his notebook, that he doesn't really do lyrics. They'd undoubtedly be laughably depressive and overly emotional.
Wednesday creeps round again, and Merlin's plans of bunking off band practice for the second week in a row are thwarted by none other than Morgana, who really has to do nothing more than stare imperiously at him and utter his name in a loaded voice to have him scurrying to practice room 3. That girl has a future career as a teacher, he decides. Or possibly a dominatrix.
"Right." Morgana all but growls at the three of them. Merlin leans against the wall, as far away from Arthur as it's possible to get in a three-by-five metre room. It's the closest they've been in nearly two weeks. Even in history Merlin had opted to sit at the back next to Gilli rather than in his usual spot behind Arthur, scribbling his own lists in lieu of their usual notes. Arthur's always there, though, a flash of blond hair and a flicker of light at the edge of his peripheral vision. The tug in Merlin's chest so insistent, that he doesn't dare look at him for long because Christ, he has to get over this.
"I've heard bits and pieces of what happened at the party." There's a slight flush to her cheeks, a temporary ruffle of her usual icy composure that makes Merlin wonder just what happened to her that weekend, but of course he doesn't dare to ask. "And I'm not really interested in hearing any more," she adds quickly with a fierce glare at her brother. "The bottom line is, we don't want any Yoko Onos in this band. Am I clear?"
"Yes," Arthur mumbles, as Lance says, more clearly, "Of course."
Merlin's torn between 'yes ma'am' and 'yes mistress', and settles in the end for a "Yeah" which is more like a sigh.
Band practice is brief and perfunctory. Merlin doesn't share his new music and Arthur doesn't hang about afterwards, but it happens, and that's a step forward.
"I'm sure he is sorry, you know," Morgana says, catching him on the way out. She's probably right, Merlin knows. Arthur has memorised the school regulations in order and could probably get a spot on You Bet reciting them to Matthew Kelly in less than sixty seconds if it weren't for the fact that that would make terrifically boring television. Of course Arthur knows that friendship has rules too, and that he's stepped out of line.
The next day in history Merlin feels a sharp elbow poking his arm and looks up, surprised. Gilli isn't the sort to pass notes; he's even more twitchy and nervous than Arthur in that respect. Merlin can't think why everyone he meets is so bothered about the rules (nobody was in Ealdor, he didn't think even the cane would've stopped them nicking his tuck money, defacing his locker and kicking his shins under the table). And he's been to detention, the teachers aren't that scary. Mr. Kilgarrah's probably certifiably insane, with all his nonsense about destiny and that mouldy bloody jacket, but still, he's not exactly a dragon.
Nonetheless, there is a note, a neatly folded scrap of lined paper, the blue ink visible from the outside. Perhaps it's an invitation from Gilli to join his dungeons and dragons group. Merlin isn't entirely sure he'll say no if it is – he still needs something to do on Wednesday afternoons, after all. Merlin unfolds it and smothers a smile as he recognises Arthur's handwriting.
Top five bands beginning with A?, it says at the top and underneath, Do you want to come round after school? Y/N
He makes Arthur wait, just a little bit, watching the way his neck tenses every second that goes by without a reply, waiting for him to twitch and turn to look. He cracks, eventually, and Merlin just gives him what he hopes is an enigmatic smile.
He answers the first question with Ash, The Auteurs and Aerosmith, and scribbles a yeah, alright underneath in answer to the second question. Gilli tuts audibly when he asks him to pass the paper forward. Arthur turns round and grins at him, and when he passes the paper back he's crossed out Aerosmith and put Avalon in at the top.
It's not exactly an apology, but then again, Merlin isn't exactly expecting one. It makes him feel ridiculously fond, all the same. Maybe it should be worrying, just how quickly he's forgiven him, but falling back into friendship feels right. Falling in love might just be an unfortunate side-effect.
Arthur starts a campaign of doing annoying things, like dropping spiders down Merlin's neck and recording a tape with nothing but Might Be Stars by the Wannadies on sixteen times in a row and making them all listen to it in the car. Morgana's not in the slightest bit phased by any of it. She declares she didn't notice it was the same song, as "all Arthur's songs sound the same anyway" and yawns as she crushes the spiders under the heel of her Doc Martens.
So Merlin ends up being the target for most of it, along with all the headlocks and half-nelsons and clipped ears Arthur deems it necessary to inflict on him. Merlin thinks it's prat-speak for 'I like you in a totally heterosexual way', which is both endearing and a little frustrating. It's hard not to let his thoughts wander to less PG-rated places when Arthur's pressed all along his back, pinning his arms behind him as he leans across to steal his chips or copy his homework notes.
He stares in frustration at the ceiling in his bedroom and wonders aloud what exactly he's done in a past life to deserve this.
The poster of Morrissey stares moodily into the distance and doesn't give him an answer.
Christmas creeps up almost without warning. The Chippy is busier than ever in the run up, decorated with rows of tacky tinsel under the counter and foil streamers hanging from the ceiling, all of which are probably against at least twelve different health and safety regulations, but cheer the place up a bit. At least Gaius doesn't make them all wear Santa hats. Seasonal cheer is like a virus and even Cedric has caught some of it, no longer complaining about every single little thing that Merlin does. He even offers to cover Merlin's shift so he can do a bit of Christmas shopping (which, of course, he has left to the last minute).
He buys perfume for his mum, and a spice rack for Gaius, since the one in the kitchen is something he made in year eight D&T and slopes horribly. He suffers agonies of indecision over whether to get anything for his friends. He feels fairly safe in calling them his friends, now, but the mechanics of new friendship is still a minefield to be negotiated carefully. Do they even do that sort of thing? Would it be worse to embarrass himself and them with carefully wrapped gifts, or to get nothing? And then there is the question of what to buy. He rules out jewellery or perfume for Morgana, both on the grounds of expense and potential embarrassment, in the end deciding to brave hitting his head on the windchimes and dreamcatchers in Morgana's favourite shop and coming out with a couple of keychains – one in the shape of a coffin for Morgana and one for Lance that doubles as a bottle opener, always handy at parties.
For Arthur, though, something else is needed. Merlin steals the 'Might Be Stars' mixtape and records over it. That way he can pretend it's an offhand gesture, something to save his own sanity, when in reality he's spent hours carefully selecting the songs, from Creep to The Drowners to That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore, which makes him chuckle as he writes it in the sleeve notes, finishing up with The You and Me Song, since Arthur seems to have this inexplicable fondness for the Wannadies. He titles it 'Merry Xmas' and hopes it's not too obvious that really, it should be called 'Songs That Remind Me Of How Much I Love You.'
Arthur grins when Merlin hands it over, and for a second Merlin thinks he's going to hug him, but he seems to think better of it.
"Cheers mate," Arthur says. "I didn't get you anything, though."
"Oh, don't worry," Merlin starts, but Arthur is digging around in his bag.
"Here," Arthur says, pulling out his copy of this week's Melody Maker. "Yours to keep. It's got something about that band you were on about last week. And they've got Coming Up as one of their top 10 albums of the year." Arthur grabs his pen and scribbles on the cover, To Merlin, Merry Xmas, love Arthur. "There. Keep it. It'll be worth loads when I'm famous."
"You're a twat," Merlin informs him, because he can't let on how much it really means to him.
"Likewise. You just staying in with your mum and Gaius, then?"
"Yep. Think of us, eating leftover chips while you have your six course dinner."
"As if you'll be having chips," Arthur says. "Anyway, I think you've got the better deal. You don't have to sit opposite creepy Uncle Agravaine while he stares at Morgana's cleavage. Last year I thought he was going to choke on his sprouts."
"Tell me about it. Alright, got to go. Have a good one, yeah?"
He claps Merlin on the arm, and Merlin can feel the sting of it long after he's driven away. He hugs the magazine to his chest and spends far longer than he should staring at the word love. Of course it doesn't mean what he wants it to mean, but it means something. He falls asleep with his hand pressed against the cover of the magazine.
In January Merlin braves the threatened snow at lunchtime for the new Placebo single. He spends some time looking at the different versions. It's always CDs for singles, that way he can record them onto mixtapes. Buying both versions is a bit of a luxury, on his wages from the chip shop. One of the B-sides is a Smiths cover and that clinches it, really.
He's got the plastic bag dangling from his wrist as he pushes open the door to the common room, blowing on his chapped red hands to warm them. If he'd been paying more attention to where he was walking, he'd probably have managed to avoid knocking into Valiant. As it is, he's subject to a loud, "Oi, oi!"
That Valiant doesn't immediately start in with an insult is not a good sign. If he'd called Merlin a spastic and sent him on his way, he'd have counted it as a result.
"Sorry," Merlin says, a little reluctantly. Valiant casts his eyes around and seeing he's got a bit of an audience, he smirks.
"What's this then?" He makes a grab for the bag. Merlin's not quick enough to stop him.
"Give it back, you dick."
"Nancy Boy?" Valiant reads, as if he can't quite believe his luck, and why oh why couldn't they have released Hang On To Your IQ as the next single, for fuck's sake?
"Well done," Merlin tries for sarcastic, "You can read words of more than one syllable."
"Alright, nancy boy," Valiant says with a shit eating grin, and Merlin just knows this is going to be his nickname now forever. And the worst thing is, Merlin can't just brush it off, because it's not like it's not true. He feels an unwanted heat in his cheeks, sure it must be visible to everyone – to Arthur -- and makes a final, successful attempt to snatch the CD back.
"Prick," Merlin mutters, even though he knows he's not helping himself. Assistance, though, comes from an unexpected quarter.
"Get lost, Valiant," says Gwen, coming up and linking her arm through Merlin's. Confused, he lets her, and she gives him a brief but meaningful just go with it look, before glaring at Valiant, all righteous disapproval.
"Well," says Valiant, "You would take his side, wouldn't you, you lezzer."
Gwen just snorts and tugs at Merlin's arm, leading him back out of the common room.
"What a dick," she says, as the door swings shut behind them. She lets go of Merlin's arm but he trails after her anyway. "Want to get a drink? Or do you have lectures?" She bites her lip, suddenly less sure of herself.
"Not for half an hour," Merlin says. They head to the refectory. The staff are clearing away the hot meals but nobody pays Merlin and Gwen any attention as they grab a coke and scrape back a couple of chairs.
"Valiant's an arsehole," Gwen says bluntly.
"I'd noticed," Merlin says wryly. "I'm sorry you got involved." She waves a dismissive hand.
"I'm used to it. He's been calling me a lezzer – or words to that effect – since the first term of year ten when I told him I wouldn't go out with him."
"It doesn't... bother you?"
"Why should it? It's not true. And, well, even if it was, there's nothing actually wrong with being a lesbian, is there?"
She slurps her drink and Merlin looks at her with no small amount of fascination. It hadn't really occurred to him until now that people – his friends, the people who matter – might not actually care whether he's straight or not.
"Look, Merlin," she's back to chewing her lip again in the way that she has when she's nervous or unsure. "You can tell me to, like, butt out or whatever, but, well... you are, aren't you?"
"What?" Merlin says, and he can hear his voice going all high-pitched and flustered, "A lesbian?"
"Well, no, obviously not, not exactly, but um, I mean. Gay." She lowers her voice, but the word still seems to ring out far too loud in the near-empty refectory. They've barely spoken for months, now, and it feels strange that she should be the one to see through him. Merlin sighs.
"A bit," he says, "Yeah. Is it that obvious?"
"Oh! No. Well, I'm sure it's not to everyone, just..." She looks down and Merlin grimaces, knowing she's thinking of that disaster of a party. "When we, when Arthur and I – I just thought, the way you -- I mean... are you in love with him?"
Merlin looks up, startled.
"Are you?" he counters. Gwen shakes her head.
"No. Really, no. I mean, he's cute, obviously, and a good kisser, but..." she trails off, with a shrug. "He's not actually my type."
"You never answered my question."
"I won't tell him." She's smiling around her straw. Merlin hesitates. If he says it out loud, there's no taking it back. But she knows half of it already and has guessed the rest.
"Yeah." He exhales, breathing the word out into the space between them. "I am. Oh god, Gwen, I really, really am." He slumps forward onto the table, chin on his arms. "He's just so..." he gestures weakly with one hand, in lieu of adequate words to explain just how massive and unavoidable his crush on Arthur is. Gwen finishes her drink and fixes him with a serious look.
"Look, I've got a proposition for you."
"We should go out."
"You and me. We should go out."
"But." Merlin's nose wrinkles. "Gwen, you were here for the part of the conversation where I'm gay, right?"
"Yes, of course," Gwen sighs, a little impatiently, which Merlin thinks is unfair. "Obviously we wouldn't... do anything. It would be just for appearances. It would keep Valiant off your back, for one thing."
"That is true," Merlin considers. And if his pathetic crush is obvious to Gwen, it's only a matter of time before Arthur finds out. And Arthur must never, ever find out. "But what's in it for you?"
"The Sixth Form Valentines Ball," Gwen sighs. "I don't want to go without a date, alright? It doesn't have to be for longer than that, if you don't want."
"Well it's not like I'm going to have anyone else to go with," Merlin shrugs. "Might as well."
"So, you and Gwen?" Arthur asks, leaning against the school wall with his grey woollen coat buttoned up to his chin. He doesn't meet Merlin's eyes, tracing patterns in the sludge with his shoes. Of course, Merlin, thinks, it's the first time either of them has mentioned her since the party.
"Yeah," he says, ignoring the impulse to say, No, it's only ever been you. Then a thought occurs to him and he frowns. "You don't – I mean, you don't fancy her, do you?"
"Nah," Arthur says. "She's a nice girl, but she's just not. Anyway, I think Vivian and I might be getting back together."
"Oh. Oh, that's great." Merlin hopes it sounds more convincing than it feels.
"Yes, it is," Arthur says. Merlin doesn't think he sounds terribly enthusiastic, but chalks that up to him projecting. "Take my bag in for me, will you? I promised Percy a game of football."
"I'm not your servant, you know," Merlin replies, but Arthur is already gone. He thinks about dumping the bag here in the slushy remains of the snow, but hauls it onto his shoulder after all. He spends a good few minutes staring unashamedly at Arthur, the way his back ripples as he runs, the way his hair flicks and shimmers like a golden crown in the pale January sunlight.
Merlin spends the whole of History staring at the back of Arthur's head, lost in fantasies where Arthur is a Medieval King and Merlin is his servant. Arthur would be just as bossy as he is now, he decides, ordering him around. He bites the end of his biro as he imagines Arthur ordering him to his knees, leaning back on his royal throne, one hand pulling hard on Merlin's hair as he unties the laces on his trousers, revealing his long –
"Merlin!" Arthur hisses, bringing him back to the present with a disorientating bump. Merlin blinks and looks at him, trying hard not to stare at his lips. "Daydreaming about Gwen?" Arthur mouths, and Merlin shakes his head and wriggles embarrassedly, knowing Arthur doesn't believe him, but he can hardly tell Arthur he's spent half the lesson thinking about sucking his cock, can he?
Arthur turns back round but seconds later there's a note shoved onto his desk.
I bet you have your name and hers drawn in little hearts on your folder
As if, Merlin scribbles in response. But now he can't help but wonder what their names would look like written together. Merlin and Arthur. Arthur and Merlin. Top 10 cover versions? he writes instead, in need of a distraction. But when it's his turn the only thing he can think of is I Can't Help Falling In Love With You. There's a too-long pause before Arthur writes back and his heart's climbing its way up his throat before he gets the note with the scribbled, UB40, really, Merlin? and doesn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
The Valentines Ball isn't as bad as Merlin feared when Gwen first mentioned it to him. He'd envisaged the school hall decked out in paper streamers and pink balloons with the girls huddled in one corner and the boys in another, like a lower school disco. He perks up a bit when he discovers it's not actually going to be held on school premises, because at least that means he can go down the pub with Arthur beforehand.
Seven o'clock he arrives in the Rising Sun, a pub notorious for turning a blind eye to underage drinkers. It's dark, which helps. Anyone can be eighteen or eighty in the right light, he supposes. There's a couple of old men sat at the bar with cigars, too. The smoke's so thick it's a wonder anyone can see more than an inch in front of their nose.
"Mine's a Stella," Arthur says, handing him a tenner.
"I suppose you want change from that," Merlin sighs.
"Yup. Oh and Merlin?"
"Don't spill it." Arthur smirks and Merlin wonders if it would be very childish to stick his tongue out at him. He gets three pints of Fosters, just because it's cheaper, and he doesn't think Arthur will really be able to tell the difference.
When he gets back to the table Arthur and Lance are flipping beermats and if they even get to drink one drink in here without getting chucked out it will be a miracle. He keeps his own pint in his hand and declares his intention of going over to the jukebox in the corner. Arthur scrapes his chair back and follows him, leaning over his shoulder and breathing in a way that's unfairly distracting.
"Oi, if you're going to be using my change, I think I should get to choose," Arthur says, taking the money out of Merlin's hand. Merlin rolls his eyes and scrolls through the available options. They bicker over the choices but eventually pick three, grinning and elbowing each other as they return to their table.
Only one of their picks gets played before it's time to leave, but they make up for it by shout-singing "Let's all meet up in the year 2000" all the way down the road. They stop off at Midland for Merlin to get a fiver out of the machine, Arthur complaining the whole time ("What's the point of just getting out a fiver, Merlin, you'll need to come back." "We can't all be the Fresh Prince of Bel air, you know, that's all I've got."). By the time they get there, there's a queue and they shiver a little as they wait to hand over their tickets, get their hands stamped and go in.
It's a little like a lower school disco after all, Merlin sees as he steps inside. He spots Gwen on the one side of the room and waves, as Arthur drags him and Lance over to join a huddle of lads on the other. There are a few of the more established couples snogging in corners and braving the dancefloor, but it's largely a lot of standing around.
The conversation is mostly about football, although it drifts into discussions of the girls present and their attributes. Merlin doesn't know whether to be relieved that he has a date, and therefore an excuse not to have to fake an interest in Vivian's legs or Elena's tits, or embarrassed at the whole continuing charade.
"Your face, Merlin!" Arthur says when a large proportion of the crowd have wandered off in search of drinks, or girls, or both.
"My face?" he retorts.
But Arthur continues, "Worried Gwen will find out if you talk about other girls?"
"No," he says, because that assumption is wrong in so many ways. Arthur's pressed all along his side, even though the crowd has dissipated and there's more space now. He wants to ask Arthur if he knows the meaning of the phrase 'personal space', but then Arthur might stop and become self-conscious and really, he doesn't want for this wonderful, godawfularousing casual touching to stop. Ever.
The song switches, something slow and filthy. Merlin leans against the wall slightly, sipping his drink and watching as the dance floor begins to fill with clinging couples. Arthur leans, too, still too close. Still not close enough.
"What's the time?" Arthur asks. He doesn't pause to wait for Merlin to answer, though, reaching across and grabbing Merlin's wrist to read the time for himself. Merlin stares at Arthur's fingers wrapped around his wrist and sucks in a breath, sure that time has stopped, just for that instant, even though he can feel his own pulse leaping under Arthur's touch.
The singer is warbling something about wanting to be more than friends and Merlin can't help but let his eyelids flutter close, just for a second and wish.
Arthur pulls back with a gruff, "Cheers, mate," and Merlin knows he has to escape before his fantasies get the better of him. He's grateful for the darkness, at least Arthur won't be able to see the effect he has on him. He excuses himself to the toilets, leaning against the door of the cubicle and breathing hard.
"Get a grip," he mutters to himself. It's ridiculous to have gotten hard over something so inconsequential. He talks himself out of it and heads back to the main room.
The majority of the sixth form are in the centre of the floor, taking House of Pain's suggestion that they 'jump around' quite literally. Somehow Merlin finds himself as part of a circle, Gwen on one side, and Arthur on his other. Everybody is clinging to everybody else to stay upright, and it shouldn't make him lose his breath when Arthur's arm slips around his waist, fingers splayed against his ribs, but it does. Their hips bump together as they jump and for all the maddening casual touches and mild violence he's been subjected to over the last few months, Merlin's never quite had cause to consider the way they fit together like this. He's laughing, breathless, as they're pushed and pulled about, clinging to Arthur, flushed with exertion and love. He's reluctant to pull away, after, and when Arthur finally moves apart, peeling away from him, Merlin shivers as he feels Arthur's hand trail up across his back. He knows that this touch, surely innocent and yet seeming to contain such promise, will plague his thoughts and sustain his fantasies for weeks after.
The DJ apparently thinks he's onto a winner with songs that can be interpreted literally and slips into Reef's Place Your Hands. Merlin tenses, not sure whether he will be able to bear any more of Arthur's hands on him without expiring from want. But he needn't have worried. Arthur's attentions have turned quite decidedly to Vivian, instead. There's barely an inch of space between them as they sway in an undeniably provocative manner.
"Shit," Merlin says, turning to Gwen and indicating the couple with a jerk of his chin. Arthur and Vivian are attracting a few whoops and jeers as they attempt to slow dance to a song that really isn't meant for it.
"Oh Merlin. I'm sorry," Gwen says. Merlin feels like his whole life is the same song on repeat, a never ending cycle of Arthur flirting with him and then ditching him for a girl. Except that it's not flirting, not really, that's just him and his own stupid wishful thinking.
The next song is something that people actually can slow dance to, and he puts his arms around Gwen, lightly and impersonally, shuffling his feet a little.
"I should have mentioned I can't actually dance at all. Sorry."
"Me neither," Gwen says. "Just keep shuffling and nobody will notice."
Despite the dirty dancing at the ball, and the emergence of a whole raft of tortured romantic lyrics which Morgana teases Arthur mercilessly about (when she can be bothered to turn up to band practice), nothing more seems to happen between Arthur and Vivian. Life goes on much as it did before. Merlin doesn't know whether he's relieved or still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Although he's ostensibly dating Gwen, Merlin still spends pretty much every spare second with Arthur, quibbling over favourite bands, favourite songs, favourite B-sides. They nearly don't talk to each other for three days when Merlin expresses a preference for Generation Terrorist over The Holy Bible.
Merlin drags Arthur down to the music shop once he's saved up enough money from his shifts at the Chippy to finally buy the blue 12-string electro-acoustic he's been ogling in the window for months.
"Isn't she lovely?"
"I think I'm going to call her Aithusa."
"You give your guitars names?" Arthur just looks at him, eyebrows raised. Merlin's suddenly aware of being deeply uncool.
"Shut up. All guitarists do it."
"I think that's a lie, and you're just a weirdo," Arthur asserts. "I bet you name all your stuff. I bet you even have a name for your dick."
"Fuck off," Merlin says, "I couldn't find a name long enough."
Arthur thumps him on the arm and wanders over to the back of the shop where all the cables and recording equipment is kept while Merlin pays for his 12-string.
"We should record a demo," Arthur says, when Merlin catches up with him.
"Yeah, we've got three songs just about done. We could have our very own EP."
"Flog it at break time for two quid a tape?" Merlin says. He's not serious, but Arthur nods as if he's made a good suggestion.
"Why not? Got to start somewhere."
Arthur asks the man behind the counter how much for the 4 track recorder, which is the best model and so on. Merlin feels the faintest stab of annoyance at how easily Arthur parts with getting on for a hundred quid on a whim, when he's had to slave away up to his elbows in chip greases for months to be able to afford this guitar.
Morgana raises a perfectly sculpted eyebrow when Arthur dumps the 4 track and a whole pile of blank cassettes on the coffee table at the Pendragons' house.
Lance thinks it's an excellent idea, and they get to work the next day, Morgana in charge of hooking up all the necessary cables and positioning the mic. Merlin's sceptical; their stuff is still raw, still rough. They've only got one FX pedal and they have to stick Lance and his drum kit in another room so he doesn't drown the rest of them out. It takes several takes to get something they're all reasonably happy with and the rest of the afternoon to record it onto all the tapes. Morgana does some kind of magic with her computer -- which actually has Windows 95 rather than the 3.1 Merlin's still using on the one he shares with his mum – and produces a paper inlay card for the tape boxes with 'Avalon' in large blue font and 'The Secret Sharer EP' underneath.
It's not until he gets home and slips the tape into his walkman that Merlin really appreciates what they've achieved – their own songs, the music he's written, Arthur's lyrics, there for him to listen to anytime he likes. He turns it up, louder still, until he's flooded with it, with Arthur's voice, through the wires and straight into his veins.
It's bright for March, the sort of deceptively unclouded sky which promises warmth but doesn't deliver. It's hard to concentrate on the Causes and Consequences of the Reformation with Arthur sitting a mere metre in front of him. There have been no notes so far today, but if Arthur's muffled huffs of breath and barely imperceptible fidgeting are anything to go by, he's as bored as Merlin. Really, whoever dreamed up double History on a Tuesday morning was a sadist, Merlin decides. He tears off a strip of lined paper from his A4 pad and scribbles,
A dreaded sunny day, so I'll meet you by the side gate
He jabs Arthur with his biro to get his attention and pushes the paper into his hand, trying not to savour the brief brush of their fingers as Arthur takes it from him. Arthur risks turning to give him a slightly quizzical smile, appreciating the Smiths reference but not understanding the intent behind it, just as Merlin intended.
"What's this all about, then?" Arthur asks, folding his arms and leaning against the greenish wall of the drama hut and frowning at Merlin's guitar case. "We've only got fifteen minutes break, you know."
"Not if we decide to take a longer one," Merlin grins, heading down the steps and pushing open the gate.
"Isn't that supposed to be locked?" Arthur frowns.
"I don't think so. Fire exits, and all that. Anyway, you coming?"
"Merlin, are you talking about bunking off?" Arthur's aiming for teasing, it sounds like, but there's a tightness in his voice which betrays his uncertainty.
"Is that what you call it down South? Skiving, skipping school, playing truant, yeah." He pauses. "Are you seriously telling me you've never bunked off before?"
"I'm head boy," Arthur reminds him.
"You've only got a term and a half left. Less than that, if you count study leave. Everyone should do it at least once before they leave school."
"You're a bad influence on me, Rhys," Arthur mutters, but he's following him down the steps and out through the gate all the same. "What if we get caught?"
"What if we do? You've got an exemplary attendance record, they're hardly going to worry about one day. If it bothers you that much, say you were sick. Morgana's time of the month seems to coincide with Statistics tests an awful lot but nobody bats an eyelid."
"Ok, first, never mention my sister's 'time of the month' ever again. I don't even want to know how you know that. Second, Morgana's a maths genius who can do statistics in her sleep, while you and I will do well to pass this early modern module at all." This isn't strictly true. Merlin will struggle to pass, because he's spent the best part of the term being distracted by Arthur's neck and his shoulders and even his bloody elbows. Arthur will breeze through it, but Merlin doesn't think he needs his ego stoked any more, so he doesn't point this out. Besides, for all his protests, Arthur is following him out of the school and down the quiet back road. Nobody so much as looks twice in their direction, probably assuming they're on lunch, or a free period, or a school-sanctioned outing, and gradually Arthur begins to relax.
"Where do you want to go?"
"I don't know. This is your hare-brained scheme, remember?"
"Hare-brained? What does that even mean?"
"It means your tiny rabbit-sized mind clearly hasn't thought this through properly."
"Well, where do kids go in this town? There must be a castle, a hill, a park or something where all the cool kids hang out."
"Don't be such a dweeb. Where did the 'cool kids' hang out in Ealdor?" Arthur asks curiously, and despite the mocking tone, Merlin feels something warm and silly wrap around his heart at the thought that Arthur has remembered the things he's told him about his life, like the name of his old town.
"I don't know, they wouldn't tell me," Merlin snorts. "Come on, I know where there is a castle, at least."
Castle Arcades dominates the West beach, a long building with a grey MDF fascia designed to look like castle turrets. It's like something off of Changing Rooms. Even in the off season it's not empty, a few of the regulars, mostly elderly men and women, sitting in their favourite spots at the slot machines, tupperware containers filled with coins on their laps.
Arthur heads straight for the 10p machines, convinced that if he times the drop just right, he can win the fiver rolled up and balanced precariously on top of a pile of 10ps to the left. To Merlin's surprise, he does, collecting his prize with a whoop of joy. He changes it in the change machine and drags Merlin over to the claw machine, where a forlorn collection Euro '96 mascots lie piled up, waiting to be won.
"Look at them. Kind of sad, isn't it?"
"England's performance was kind of sad," Merlin says, and Arthur bumps him with his shoulder.
"Southgate should never have missed," he agrees. "A national tragedy."
"Hardly. Anyway, there's always the World Cup next year."
Arthur puts a quid in the machine anyway and manages to hook one of the lions.
"Here," he says, thrusting it at Merlin's chest so he has no choice but to take it. "Happy birthday."
Merlin, whose birthday isn't for another couple of weeks, stares after him, heart doing silly flip-floppy things inside his chest, as Arthur walks off without making eye contact.
They spend the rest of the fiver and anything they do win goes straight back in. Soon, they're down to their last pound and Merlin shakes his head violently when Arthur suggests the penny pusher.
"Nuh-uh. I want chips. Come on."
They don't dare go to Gaius's, in case they're caught skiving and sent straight back to school. Merlin helps himself to half of the cone of chips he makes Arthur buy from the shop on the promenade and there's a tang of guilt along with the salt and vinegar at giving business to Gaius's rivals.
They find a sheltered part of the bay and sit on the rocks. It's bloody cold, for all that the sun's shining.
"We ought to get one of them beach houses," Merlin says, looking a little wistfully at the rows of multicoloured wooden huts across the sands.
"My dad's got one, I think."
"Your dad probably owns half the beach. No good to us if you don't have the key, is it?"
Merlin fumbles a cigarette out of his bag and offers one to Arthur.
"Smoking, Merlin, really?"
"We're not on school premises and we're seventeen. It's perfectly legal."
"We should be on school premises, though, that's the point."
"Not worth going back now, though, is it?"
"Nah, guess not."
"Look at you, Arthur Pendragon, rebel without a clue. Wearing non-standard uniform and snogging behind the bikesheds are next."
Merlin puts his cigarette between his lips and lights it, surprised when Arthur pulls it out of his mouth to take a puff for himself. Arthur coughs a little and hands it back, saying, "I really don't see what people see in that," but Merlin isn't listening because he's too busy marvelling over the fact that Arthur willingly put something in his mouth that had been in his mouth. It's like his libido has temporarily taken control of his brain, as the next thing he does is lean over and yank at Arthur's tie until it's louchely undone, before fingering the top button of his shirt until it pops free.
"There," he says. His voice is a little hoarse which he hopes he can blame on the cigarette, and he has to put his hands behind his back so Arthur won't notice they're shaking. Arthur's staring at him, expression guileless and wondering. Then he blinks and shakes his hair so his hair falls in front of his eyes.
"That's the list ticked off, then," he says. "I've already done the snogging behind the bikesheds thing when I was in year ten," he adds, and all Merlin can say is, "Oh," and hope it doesn't sound too disappointed.
He turns away, busying himself with unzipping his guitar case and pulling out the acoustic which he sometimes brings to school for impromptu practises or just singing sessions in the common room. He lets his fingers caress the strings as he tunes and starts strumming the chords to his newest composition.
"I like that," Arthur says, leaning back against the rock, eyes closed. Merlin doesn't say anything but keeps playing, as Arthur begins to improvise a melody, the odd word thrown in here and there and 'las' and 'oh's and 'hmm's where he can't think of a rhyme. Merlin segues from that into a couple of their other songs, and on into seeing how quickly Arthur can guess the songs he's playing from the opening chords or guitar solos.
It seems hours later when he stops, and settles down against the rock, not too close to Arthur but not too far either.
"My fingers hurt," he complains.
"No pain no gain," Arthur tells him.
"Sod off," he says without malice.
"Nope. I quite like it here."
Merlin quite likes it here, too. Their own little private corner of the beach.
Arthur reaches for his rucksack and digs through it until he pulls out his walkman – a proper Sony, not like Merlin's cheap knock-off from Tandy – and a pair of earbuds. He offers one to Merlin, with a raised eyebrow. Merlin puts it in but it soon falls out, and he shuffles closer and tries again, reminding himself to breathe as he finds himself squished up against Arthur's side, feeling every rise and fall of his chest, every shift of his hips.
It's the tape he made Arthur for Christmas, Merlin realises after a couple of songs. He cringes a little to think just how obvious he has been as The Wannadies sing about you and me always. But Arthur doesn't seem to have noticed, and more importantly – and it's this thought almost as much as their sudden proximity that has Merlin's heart racing – he kept the tape. It doesn't mean anything, of course it doesn't, just that he's forgotten about it, or recorded his new compilations on some other cassette, but still, he likes the idea that Arthur has had it, might even have been listening to it all this time, it's almost like a sort of connection between them.
Arthur's hand brushes lightly against his leg, an accident, Merlin supposes, but he doesn't move it, just lets it rest there on his thigh, and Merlin feels suddenly tense with arousal. He shifts, just slightly, hoping that Arthur will realise and move it, but he doesn't. Merlin feels his breathing speed up, sure that it's audible, especially since they only have one earbud each. He lets his gaze flicker across to Arthur's face, only to find Arthur's eyes on him already. He takes in Arthur's blue eyes and the way his hair falls in front of them, his neck, exposed beneath Merlin's prior efforts to loosen his collar, his lips, soft-looking, quirked into a quizzical smile. He's so young and beautiful and so everything Merlin wants in the world that he finds he can't breathe. And then Arthur must see something of this overwhelming desire in his face, because his lazy smile slips, replaced by something more serious, almost hungry. It's Arthur who moves, it has to be, because Merlin is frozen with awe and want, pinned beneath his gaze, and not at all prepared for the sudden, warm feeling of Arthur's lips on his.
It's a soft, dry, closed-mouthed kiss, more wondering than demanding, a graze of skin and a flutter of shared breath, more of a promise of a kiss than a kiss itself. It's more than he ever dreamed of and not nearly enough all at once, and Merlin tilts his head slightly, just beginning to press back, to flick a questioning tongue between Arthur's parted lips when the sudden loud bark of a dog, startlingly near, causes Arthur to jerk back and swear softly, scrambling to his feet, grabbing his bag and running away before Merlin, dazed and confused and more turned on than he's ever been in his whole life, can even begin to think about calling out after him.
He makes his way home, feeling suddenly colder. Everything's distorted and distant. He goes into the Chippy and ties up his apron but he can't concentrate on anything, his whole body breaking out into goosebumps every time he remembers Arthur's mouth on his, Arthur's hand on his leg. Gaius sends him upstairs after he mixes up three customers' orders and drops a batch of freshly cooked chips onto the floor. He glances briefly at the telephone, he does have Arthur's home number, somewhere, but it's not a cordless, and he doesn't want to have this conversation with his mum clattering about in the kitchen and listening to his every word.
By the time he wakes up for school the next morning, the kiss has become mixed up with dreams in which they went much further than a kiss, Arthur's hand creeping up his thigh to press hotly against him, the two of them rutting and writhing in the sand. He wakes up hard and confused and wondering whether any of the previous afternoon really happened at all.
”I’ve been thinking about you, so how can you sleep?
These people aren’t your friends, they’re paid to kiss your feet.
They don’t know what I know, so why should you care,
When I’m not there?
Radiohead - Thinking About You
Arthur's not there when he gets into school. He waits for him after English Lit, only to spot him talking to Percy and Valiant out by the football field. He decides against any kind of attempt at a conversation while Valiant's there, and turns to go back inside the school building when Arthur turns, and he sees a figure that had been hidden from view before. Vivian. And now he can't help but notice that Vivian is not just standing with them, she is holding Arthur's hand.
Merlin goes to the school secretary and tells her he's not feeling well. Stomach ache. It's not even a lie, and she takes one look at his pale face and simply nods, dismissing him. He doesn't go home, though, seeking out Gwen and throwing himself miserably into the chair next to her.
"Arthur," he says. "And Vivian." Gwen nods, a little sadly, but it doesn't seem like this is surprising news to her. Then again, she doesn't know what happened on the beach the day before. He fills her in on the details while she goggles at him, before sighing and letting her pull him into a much-needed hug. She rubs his back soothingly.
"Poor you," she says, "This is well messed up."
There's a cough from behind them and they pull apart, only to see Arthur and Lancelot staring down at them. Gwen bites her lip and Merlin tries to catch Arthur's eye, but he sees nothing in his face that could possibly be acknowledgment or even recollection of what happened between them.
"Just thought I should let you lot know that I'm going to be helping Vivian with her duet this afternoon, so I won't be able to make band practice."
This, as far as Merlin is concerned, is the final straw. Vivian can't take Wednesday afternoons as well, she can't.
"You can't just skip band practice! We've got a concert to practice for, we need to work on the new song."
"Well, you can do without me this once."
"Later, Merlin. Lance." Arthur claps Lance on the back as he leaves – Lance, not Merlin – and Merlin feels like crying. Is he going to lose everything, the band, Arthur's friendship, over one kiss – a kiss that Arthur initiated?
"I'm sorry Gwen, I think I'll head home after all," he says, feeling queasy.
It's like they were never more than acquaintances. Arthur doesn't ignore him, precisely, but there are no more notes, no more clipped ears or squeezed arms, no more secret smiles and jokes that only the two of them share. He spends a lot of time parading around with Vivian's hand in his, almost like he's showing her off, a prize, a trophy. Merlin knows this because he spends a lot of time walking around with Gwen, skulking after Arthur. He feels like a right creep doing it, but Arthur doesn't so much as glance in his direction.
He wonders what they do after school, whether they go out to dinner or to the cinema. Does Arthur kiss her, does he put his hand down her top or up her skirt? Does he go round to her house when her parents are out and go up to her bedroom? Has she seen him naked? Do they have sex? It's salt water to his wounds to realise that Arthur and Vivian could perfectly legally have sex, while even if Arthur, by some miracle, wanted to do it with him, they'd have to wait until they were both eighteen. Small wonder dicks like Valiant think they can get away with tripping you up and calling you 'nancy boy', when such discrimination is enshrined in law.
When Arthur's not with Vivian he's playing football on the top field or joking with Percy and Leon and sometimes even Valiant. This is possibly the worst part. Merlin could probably, just about understand Arthur preferring girls – even vapid airheads who, Gwen tells him, sobbed when Take That split – but being cut out of Arthur's friendship circle in favour of Valiant on top of that is like a kick in the teeth.
He records over the mix tape he made with Avalon's songs on it. He can't listen to Arthur singing about love, not when he has to watch him acting it out with someone else right in front of his eyes. He can't listen to any of the songs they listened to together on the beach either. He hates Arthur a little bit for taking the music away from him, too, for having tainted it so that he can't listen to his favourite songs without thinking about him. He fills a tape instead with all the angry songs he owns. He sits hunched over his 12 string at break times and strums his guitar with more venom than even the angriest of angry songs deserves. It doesn't really make him feel better.
On the second of April Merlin's mum makes him toast with jam. She doesn't say anything about the date but the jam says she's remembered. Merlin shrugs on his school blazer, digs out the tape labelled 'For Will' from the back of his drawer and jams it in his walkman.
Gwen gives him a questioning look when she spots him, turning her thumbs from up to down. Merlin shows her sideways thumbs in response and waves to show it's nothing for her to worry about. He doesn't really want to talk to anyone today, just wants to keep his head down and get home. The tape helps, grounding him, although there are times when it causes his eyes to prickle and his nose to itch. It's mostly slower, sadder songs, as well as a couple of sillier songs he might have been embarrassed to admit to listening to under other circumstances but which remind him of Will – Unbelievable by EMF, because Will used to sing it non-stop when they were twelve and dressed in matching shell suits; Gangsta's Paradise because it was on the radio so much, after.
He doesn't really think about Arthur at all, because that's a different kind of heartbreak, one that he doesn't have room for today. He tries to concentrate on his work, hoping he can get through the day without incident. Valiant, of course, has other ideas.
"Oi, nancy boy, give us a listen." Valiant grins round the room but most people are ignoring him, as usual. Merlin sticks two fingers up at him and turns up the volume. Valiant gets a look on his face that says he's not done yet, and Merlin braces himself, curling his fingers protectively around his walkman. Valiant goes for his bag, though, and Merlin realises in hindsight it was stupid to have left it open, the cassette case with the tracklisting scribbled on the inlay card nestling on the top.
Valiant spots it straight away and grabs it before Merlin has a chance to stop it.
"Alright, I'm just having a look."
"Give it back," Merlin says wearily.
"'For Will'," Valiant reads and Merlin wants to smack him in the mouth for even saying his name. "Who's Will, your boyfriend?"
On any other day Merlin could have brushed it off, ignored him, but he's too tired and too sad to let it slip.
"No, actually," he says, getting to his feet and snatching the case back from an astonished Valiant. "He was my best friend, and he's fucking dead alright, so just fucking leave it." Merlin can hear the rising hysteria in his voice, but he doesn't care what he looks like as long as he doesn't break down and cry right here in the common room. He will not give Valiant the satisfaction.
He stuffs the case back in his bag and walks right out, with a murderous glare at every one of the lads in the room who watch Valiant every fucking time and never say a thing. Gwen is the only one who he's seen stand up to him in all the time he's been here. The last boy in the row of stunned, silent faces is Arthur.
Merlin doesn't go home. That would only lead to his mum or Gaius asking questions and that's the last thing he needs right now. He decides to go down to the music department instead. Mercifully practice room 3 is empty, the year nine class all in the main room doing music theory. He's too agitated to play, though, just standing and breathing in his tiny soundproof sanctuary.
The door swings open and Merlin's ready with a 'sod off' if it's a year nine, 'sorry sir', if it's a teacher. It's neither. Instead Arthur stands there, an apologetic look on his face, hand outstretched as he edges nearer, as though Merlin's a wild animal who might bite.
"Look, Merlin," he says, and it's the most either of them have said to each other in days. "I'm sorry. I never knew. About your friend."
"No," Merlin says, because he doesn't know what else to say. He hasn't spoken about Will since he left Ealdor. It felt like a betrayal, leaving him there. Leaving Freya back there all alone.
"Two years ago. Car accident." The whole sorry story in five words. Not much to show for a life. Not much of a life, cut short at fifteen. Merlin closes his eyes and breathes in sharply through his nostrils.
"I'm sorry," Arthur says again.
"Yeah, well," Merlin says. There's so much he wants to say to Arthur, like why did you? and why can't you just? and I bloody love you, you know. His feelings bubble up inside him and he can't seem to find the words for any of them. He settles with, "I don't know why you hang around with Valiant anyway."
"No he isn't. It's all alright for you, isn't it, the golden boy. You don't know what it's like to be teased, all the bloody time for being different. For being queer." It's only the second time he's said it out loud to anyone, and he didn't really envisage it happening like this. He's angry and frustrated, wanting to wipe the smirk off Arthur's face. "I wonder what Valiant would say if he knew the truth about you, Arthur." He pushes him in the chest, not hard, but Arthur's face goes pale, hurt and angry. His nostrils flare and his eyes narrow and he pushes Merlin right back. Merlin being Merlin, he stumbles and falls with a crash into the drum kit.
Arthur turns around and walks out.
Merlin's birthday is one week before Arthur's. He doesn't have anything special planned, but he doesn't want to see the pitying look on his mum's face when she asks him, so he says he's going into town with 'some friends'. He confides in Gwen who, of course, decides they have to make the fib a reality. Lance agrees pretty quickly when Gwen asks him, and even Morgana says she'll stop by.
He doesn't ask Arthur.
It's pleasant enough, quiet and companionable, a few friends having a few drinks. He smiles genuinely when Gwen presents him with a large flashing badge saying '18' (although doesn't wear it, in case the bar staff recognise him from last time and decide to retrospectively prosecute him.)
Merlin doesn't think about Arthur much, except when he sees a couple of boys laughing as they pick songs on the jukebox, or when Lance starts flipping beer mats, or every time the door opens and he finds himself glancing towards it with a nervous hopeful feeling at the back of his throat.
Morgana drops by as promised, sipping some vicious looking purple cocktail that's probably been chosen more for the way it matches her dress than the way it tastes.
"Happy birthday," she says, kissing his cheek. "My turn next week. I hope you've all got good outfits planned. Film theme, don't forget."
Merlin's heard about the twins' planned party, although at first he didn't believe it. It's hard to imagine the Pendragons' house being allowed to be used for a party. The mere thought of Percy vomiting into one of Uther Pendragon's fancy china pots has him wincing.
"I've got mine," Gwen says, practically bouncing in her chair. "I can't wait."
"I... didn't know if I was invited," Merlin mumbles.
"Of course you are," Morgana waves a dismissive hand. "Arthur's an arse," she says, in a lower voice. "It's my party too and I want you there. Which reminds me, I never did tell you about the time Arthur dressed up as Princess Di."
"No way." Gwen and Merlin both lean closer. "Morgana, details, come on!"
"I think I'll leave it to your imagination." Merlin's imagination is pretty vivid, especially when it comes to Arthur, and it doesn't take much effort to picture Arthur all doe-eyed in a string of pearls.
"What she hasn't told you is that he was only four at the time," Lance says, effectively shattering the illusion, but Gwen laughs and says, "Aw, that's adorable."
Morgana waves at someone in the doorway.
"Helios," she calls, and he comes over. Merlin realises that it's been about five months since they first saw him talking to Morgana in the shopping centre and still none of them know the slightest thing about him, besides the fact that he's clearly much older than Morgana. He doesn't exactly invite questions, either, in his sunglasses and leather jacket. He nods briefly at the rest of them before kissing Morgana deeply in a way that Merlin thinks is probably infringing on several public decency laws.
After a couple more drinks Merlin grows maudlin and complains loudly to Gwen about what a dick Arthur is. She seems a little distracted, sighing when he plonks himself down on the bench between her and Lance.
At ten forty-five, just when Merlin's given up any hope of Arthur coming, he shows up. He's got Percy, Leon and bloody Valiant in tow, and is quite clearly the worse for wear. Merlin's not entirely sober himself but at least he can walk in a straight line. They make a lot of noise at the bar, getting a double round in before last orders and downing their first pint in one. Merlin tries very hard not to look in their direction, but can't shake the feeling that Arthur keeps looking over at their table. Probably objecting to his sister and her boyfriend's public displays of affection, he surmises, but then realises that Helios is nowhere to be seen.
The barman calls time and Arthur is talking too loud, demanding another drink. Leon's across the other side of the room chatting up a blonde girl he doesn't recognise, and Percy and Valiant are doing nothing but laughing and egging him on, so Merlin decides to intervene.
"Arthur, come on, leave it, you'll get barred."
"What's it to you?" Arthur sulks, his eyes red and unfocused. Merlin wonders whether it's just alcohol or something more. He wouldn't have imagined Arthur to be the sort that took drugs – he balked at a cigarette, for goodness' sake – but he never would have imagined Arthur would be cutting band practise and hanging around with Valiant, either. He's clearly gone ever so slightly off the rails in the last couple of weeks. Merlin can't help but wonder whether this is his fault. After all, he was the one teasing Arthur about breaking the rules, telling him he didn't have enough life experience to write decent song lyrics.
"I think we should get you home," Merlin says, ignoring whatever lewd gesture Valiant is making in their direction.
"M’fine," Arthur slurs.
Merlin looks at him. He's a state, hair sweaty and plastered to his forehead, shirt stained with spilled beer. He's still angry with Arthur, but no matter how many times he tells himself that he shouldn't care, that he should just leave the prat here, tell him to sod off and drink himself into the gutter if he wants, he just can't. He does care, too much.
Gwen and Lancelot come up behind them.
"Gwen!" Arthur exclaims, swaying forward into her personal space and affecting a leer which is probably intended as a charming smile. "Gizza snog." Gwen reels back, appalled, and Lance draws himself up to his full height, starting forward as if getting ready to fight for her honour. Gwen's got that fiercely disapproving look on her face like the one Merlin's mum gets sometimes, the one that says I know that you know that you shouldn't be doing this, and Merlin thinks she's quite capable of defending her own honour. His stomach drops as he watches Arthur making a twat of himself like this, but he can't help feeling a stab of vindictive delight as Arthur's face turns a virulent shade of puce and he stumbles hurriedly to the Gents.
But after a short pause, Merlin sighs and follows him, following the sounds of retching to find Arthur crouched over in the furthest stall.
"Merlin," Arthur groans, eyes wide as he looks up from heaving into the toilet bowl. "I think I'm dying." Merlin can't help feeling a pang of sympathy. He doesn't like to see Arthur in pain, even though the twat has brought it all on himself.
"You're not dying, you prat, you've just drunk a bit too much. Come on, let's get you home."
Valiant and Percy have moved on by the time they emerge. Gwen and Lance are huddled together with Morgana by the door, coats on and ready to go, talking in fierce whispers. Morgana scowls darkly as she spots Arthur.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demands.
"Was only a couple of drinks," Arthur replies sulkily. Gwen begs the barman for a glass of water and Merlin helps her to force an uncooperative Arthur to drink it all before they leave the pub.
Lance is insistent that Gwen take the first available taxi. She's just as insistent that she doesn't need to and Merlin is wondering whether Lance's sense of chivalry would see manhandling a woman into a cab as a good or a bad thing.
"Please," Lance persists, solicitous, "I'll only worry if you don't."
She takes it, and Lance stands staring after the cab until it disappears from view.
Arthur doesn't seem to be able to stay still and wanders over to the flyover.
"Arthur what are you doing," Merlin sighs.
"The water's so still," Arthur says as he looks over the barrier, mesmerised.
"That's because it's tarmac you idiot," Merlin says, leaning against the barrier next to him. Arthur looks up at him curiously.
"You hate me now, don't you?" he asks, and the vulnerability in his voice softens something that had been clenched vice-like around Merlin's heart ever since he first saw Arthur with Vivian. Arthur's shoulders are hunched and his expression miserable. Merlin wants nothing more than to wrap his arms around him and tell him everything's going to be fine. He swallows.
"I don't hate you," he admits honestly. "I don't think I could."
He turns away before Arthur can see just how much he really, really the opposite of hates him. Arthur turns to follow but misjudges his step and stumbles on the kerb. Without thinking Merlin shoots out an arm to steady him. Arthur sways and they wind up almost nose to nose.
"Cab's here," Merlin says croakily. Arthur doesn't say anything. His eyes drop to Merlin's lips and for a moment Merlin thinks he's going to kiss him. He has to dig his nails into his palm and remind himself that it doesn't mean anything, that not half an hour before Arthur was all over Gwen. Still, it's hard to remember why it's such a terrible idea to let Arthur close to him, hard to think at all with Arthur right there in front of him, all blue eyed and floppy haired and gorgeous.
There's a sudden burst of noise, music and someone chanting "lager, lager, lager" as several pissed up townies spill out from a nearby pub. It's just the distraction Merlin needs to stop himself from doing something really stupid, like leaning in and closing the gap between them.
"Come on," he says, steering Arthur back towards the taxi rank.
Lance looks at them a little curiously when they return but Morgana just clicks her teeth in irritation and chivvies her brother into the waiting taxi, the driver grumbling about the excess charge if Arthur is sick in his car. Arthur looks back at him through the taxi window, a look on his face that Merlin can't quite decipher.
Merlin pulls up his collar and walks home.
Gwen breaks up with Merlin two days before the party.
"I just don't see this relationship going anywhere," she says.
"I thought that was kind of the point," Merlin returns, a little baffled. "Oh," he says as it occurs to him belatedly that he may have been benefiting unequally from their arrangement. "You've found someone else you want to go somewhere with."
"Stop that!" Gwen says, as he waggles his eyebrows meaningfully at her, a trick he's picked up from Gaius. "Not exactly," she admits, when he doesn't let up.
"But there's the possibility of someone, right?" Merlin presses.
"Maybe. I don't know." She's cautious and he doesn't push further.
"Wait, you are still helping me with my costume for Saturday, right?"
"Oh yes," Gwen smiles. She's obviously been taking lessons from Morgana because there's a glint in her eyes that's positively evil. "I've got all that under control."
"I'm not doing drag," Merlin warns, "And I don't want to be a bloody wizard. Sixth birthday flashbacks."
"But anything else is fair game, right?"
"Right," Merlin says warily, wondering just what exactly he's let himself in for.
He finds out what he's let himself in for on Saturday, after a far too busy, far too hot shift in the chippy. He hadn't thought he would ever get the grease out of his skin, but luckily a quick shower had done the trick and he jogs to Gwen's in the black school trousers she requested he wear.
Gwen's dad lets him in without even the slightest attempt at intimidation, which makes Merlin wonder what she's told him about him. He doesn't know all that much about dads, but he always imagined them as fiercely protective of their daughters and suspicious of potential boyfriends.
Gwen gives him a black polo neck and tells him to close his eyes. Merlin flinches when he feels something cold against his face.
"Make-up?" he asks dubiously. "You promised me no drag."
"It's not, don't worry."
When she lets him open his eyes, his face is white and there's an enormous black wig on his head. His first thought is that he’s the ghost of Robert Smith.
"Can you tell what it is yet?" Gwen says, putting on a cod-Rolf Harris accent.
He stands and lets her wrap a couple of belts around his waist and chest, something that looks suspiciously like curtain rings hanging from them. The finishing touch is presented with a flourish, a pair of scissor-like tongs crafted from wrapped foil.
"Edward Scissorhands," he grins, looking at the finished article in the mirror. "Gwen, this is great." She beams proudly.
"Just don't go snogging tons of boys and smudging the make-up."
"Chance would be a fine thing," he sighs.
"Right, my turn," Gwen says, shrugging off her jumper right there in front of him.
"Gwen!" Merlin protests, covering his eyes with his hand.
"Oh for – alright, then," Gwen says, disappearing into the bathroom. When she emerges, she's in a blue top that's little more than a bra, and a matching pair of billowy bell-bottoms. Merlin considers for a moment and then snaps his fingers.
"Princess Jasmine," he says triumphantly. It's then that he registers just how much skin there is on display, and thinks that there's definitely got to be someone she's making an effort for. "And you look... well, if I was into... you know..." he gestures vaguely and stops when he realises he's effectively miming breasts at her. "I'd probably..."
"Merlin!" she says, hurriedly, a little pained, "Really, I appreciate the effort, but 'nice outfit' would have done."
"Yours too, if I do say so myself. Come on, let's go get all the boys drooling at our feet."
Merlin can't help but notice that she buttons up a jacket over her skimpy top as they go downstairs and concludes that perhaps her dad is the over protective sort of dad after all.
The party's already well underway by the time the two of them get down the long drive; he can hear Blur's Girls and Boys blasting out even before they get inside. Merlin half expects a butler on the door checking engraved invitations, but instead Catwoman lets them in.
"Morgana," Merlin greets her. "Nice outfit."
"You're learning," Gwen says, nudging him, and he feels for the first time that maybe it will be ok if Arthur doesn't want anything to do with him anymore. He has his friends here, after all.
This new found serenity lasts for about ten minutes until he actually sees Arthur. He's wearing a chainmail tunic over an open-necked collarless white shirt with a bright red cloak draped around his shoulders. It doesn't look like a joke-shop costume and Merlin suspects that Morgana has borrowed it from one of the LARPers in her maths class. Arthur's breathtaking in a way that Merlin thinks he really ought to be used to by now. But this is something else, like all Merlin's History-lesson fantasies of Arthur as a Medieval king made flesh. Merlin swallows around the tight feeling in his throat and looks away.
He grabs a beer and goes to stand with Lance, who is dressed as one of the three musketeers. Or possibly D'Artagnan. It's more of an effort than half of the boys here have made – most of them seem to have put on a shirt and tie and come as the gangsters from Reservoir Dogs. Percy's got a 'Choose Life' t-shirt and jeans which Merlin thinks is a tenuous Trainspotting connection.
"Alright?" Lance nods at him. "Nice costume."
"Gwen did it," Merlin says. Lance's eyes drift over to where Gwen is standing with a group of giggling girls and all but pop out of his head.
"So you and Gwen, you're still..."
"No, uh, we split up, actually," Merlin admits, feeling guilty for lying, even by omission, to Lance, who has been nothing but friendly and supportive. "We're still friends and everything. I get the impression there's someone else, though."
"Oh," is all Lance says, frowning and picking at the edges of the label on his beer bottle.
As much as he tells himself not to, Merlin can't help but let his eyes drift over to Arthur. He's not surprised at his own lack of self control, but every so often he catches Arthur just looking at him and he just can't work out why. It gives him a tight, nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Arthur's house is stupidly big, but not so big that he can avoid Arthur forever. He's just returned from the kitchen with a bottle of Metz he's scrounged off someone when he finds his way blocked, Arthur stood there right in front of him. He feels suddenly small, for all he's half a head taller; Arthur has this sort of presence -- it's what makes him such a good front man for the band. If they even are a band anymore, he thinks morosely.
"Arthur," he says. "Hi. Happy birthday."
"Cheers. You came, then."
"Right. Good. Ghost of Robert Smith?"
“Edward Scissorhands,” Merlin says, waving his ‘scissors’.
If there was a Guinness World Record for awkward conversations, this would probably be a contender. Their eyes meet and hold and Merlin swallows, sure it's written all over his face just how much he still wants him.
It really feels like I'm losing my best friend sings Gwen Stefani.
"Well," says Merlin, raising his drink although there's two thirds of the bottle left. "I'm off to get another."
"Oh," Arthur says. Merlin looks back when he gets to the kitchen and Arthur's still watching him, an expression of extreme indecision on his face.
Merlin drinks and chats to more people than he realised he actually knew, and nods his head along to the music when something decent comes on, but he's not really feeling in the party mood. He keeps catching Arthur looking at him, though, with an odd sort of expression. Merlin wants to march right up to him and tell him he doesn't need his pity, if that's what it is, but he doesn't want to make a scene.
He can't find Gwen anywhere, or Lance, for that matter, so Merlin finds himself wandering outside to the patio for some fresh air. He stands by the fountain for a while. It's curiously soothing, watching it, the sort of calm he usually only feels from having his favourite songs playing at high volumes or having his fingers fly over the strings of a guitar.
His peace is disturbed somewhat by somebody – he thinks it might be Percy – rushing out and vomiting into the pond. Well at least it isn't in one of the fancy vases. Merlin sighs and heads back inside, wondering if anyone would really notice if he just took off now.
He doesn't get far when he's grabbed by the arm and pulled into the study -- a room he's positive had been locked only moments before. The door shuts behind him with a click and Merlin finds himself shoved up against it.
"Arthur?" he breathes as he looks at his assailant. Arthur's lost his chainmail somewhere. He looks flushed and hot and gorgeous.
"Merlin." Arthur runs one hand distractedly through his hair, messing it up. "I had to – needed to – fuck, you make it so --" He cuts himself off with a growl of frustration, leaning close and breathing hard, their lips only millimetres apart. Merlin just about has time to register the strains of Hanson coming from the lounge and think, faintly horrified, Oh god, Mmmbop is going to be the soundtrack to our first kiss before Arthur smashes his mouth against his.
Their noses bump together, and then their teeth, but Merlin shifts to the left slightly and then Arthur's tongue is sliding against his, fulfilling the promise of a kiss made weeks before on the beach, and it feels like nothing else. His hands come up by their own volition to clasp behind Arthur's neck, Arthur's own hands still braced against the door either side of Merlin's head. Arthur kisses him like he'll die without it. Merlin gives as good as he gets, wet and wanting. "God," Arthur groans, voice scratchy. "I haven't been able to take my eyes off you all evening. You're – you look --"
"What about Vivian?" Merlin says, accusingly, although there's a little voice in his head screaming, 'shut up, this is what you want, enjoy it'.
"I don't know," Arthur looks at him helplessly. "I know I ought to, but... I want you. I dream about you," he adds, lips, wet, close to Merlin's ear and making him shiver. "You want me too, don't you?"
There's that note of vulnerability in Arthur's voice once more and however much Merlin knows that he really ought to be angry with him, he's helpless to resist. There's no possibility of denial, not with Arthur pressed up close, breath hot against his cheek, all too able to feel the evidence of Merlin's own desires.
"I want you," Merlin confesses. Arthur lets out a small moan and peels back Merlin's polo neck before pressing his lips to Merlin's throat, sucking hard on the exposed patch of skin. Merlin's hands drop to Arthur's waist as Arthur licks his way back up his neck before finding his lips again, kissing him deeply. Merlin kisses back just as fiercely, eighteen and desperate and so in love it hurts.
Arthur's hand slips down to his hip, creeping up under the material of his shirt. Merlin wants desperately, and knows that anything Arthur asks of him, he'll give without question. He mirrors Arthur's actions, gripping his hips and there's no more of a split second of indecision before Arthur is palming him through his trousers. Merlin's head tips back, banging against the door, but he's pretty sure it's what Arthur's doing with his hand that has him seeing stars. Arthur's mouth is back on his neck again. It's not something that had ever featured in his many fantasies, but he likes it, loves that Arthur seems to want to do it to him.
Everything is a blur of lips and hands and tangled limbs, Arthur rubbing himself against his thigh, muffling his groans in Merlin's shoulder. Merlin gasps as Arthur squeezes and strokes him, the thin material of his school trousers barely any barrier at all. His skin feels hot and prickly all over and he's making these embarrassing little noises at the back of his throat.
It's too good and he can't last. He comes, and it's a bit wonderful and a bit embarrassing all at once. He doesn't know if Arthur has, and he doesn't know whether he ought to ask. If Arthur asked him to drop to his knees right now and finish him off he'd happily comply. But Arthur's gone still and sort of quiet. He doesn't know what that means. He doesn't know what any of this means, only that he doesn't ever want this moment to end, here, just the two of them in this room, Arthur's face buried against his neck, sweat cooling on his brow, the sound of Arthur's ragged breathing and his own heart thudding and stuttering in his chest the only soundtrack.
”Let us be happy while we’re still young.
Geneva - Tranquiliser
Merlin doesn't wake up until noon. It's Sunday, the chippy's closed and if he just closes his eyes and goes back to sleep, he won't have to deal with the inevitable realisation that he's let it happen again. Arthur's got well and truly under his skin this time. Arthur's got all over his skin, he amends as he looks in the mirror and catches sight of the vivid purplish mark on his neck. He runs his fingers over it and groans.
He really doesn't think he can face another morning of going into school to see Arthur ignoring him and draped around Vivian. So he doesn't. He bunks off again and hides in his room for the second day running. His mum's onto him this time though, telling him when she gets home from work that if it's not anything contagious then he needs to get his arse down the shop and help out. If she notices the hickey, she doesn't say anything. He roots around in his wardrobe, grabbing a blue scarf he didn't even realise he owned and wrapping it around his neck to cover it up, just in case.
It's quiet, as it usually is on a Monday night. Merlin's served about three people all evening, and it's just him and the quiet hum of the appliances and the occasional scrape of metal on metal. He makes a mental note to bug Gaius about getting a music license again. Gaius has quite definitively told him in the past that he won't have Merlin scaring off his customers with "that dreadful wailing sound you call music." Merlin can sit doing nothing for hours, as long as he has something to listen to, but without it he's painfully bored. He thinks about polishing the surfaces, but it would be a shame to deprive George the Saturday boy of his favourite activity.
The shop door goes and Merlin looks up, ready.
Merlin wipes his hands on his apron in a panic. This is worse than going to school. He can't have Arthur doing his "it was a mistake, it won't happen again" speech here, breaking his heart over the battered cod.
"Merlin." Arthur seems to freeze, as though he wasn't certain he'd find him here. "You weren't at school. I looked for you."
"Look, can we please not?" Merlin says quickly, avoiding his eyes, aiming to get the humiliation over and done with. "I know what you're going to say. I'd really rather –"
"I broke up with Vivian," Arthur blurts out. Merlin stills and looks up. Arthur looks nervous, the way he does when he's about to share some of his new lyrics with the rest of the band.
"Oh." Merlin doesn't know what Arthur wants him to say. Is he supposed to be sorry? He finds that now he's looking at Arthur, he can't quite manage to look away again.
"All those songs – they were never about her. You're the one I -- " Arthur takes a deep breath and when he looks right at Merlin his face is determined. "You're the one I want to be with."
"Oh," Merlin says, in an entirely different tone of voice.
"D'you want –"
"Hell yes," Merlin says in a rush, not even giving Arthur the chance to finish.
"You don't know what I was going to say," Arthur points out. Merlin shrugs and quirks his lips into a half smile. He doesn't think he could look more like a besotted idiot than he already does at this point if he tried, so why fight it?
The shop door goes, and Merlin huffs out an impatient breath at the customer's timing. Arthur doesn't miss a beat, though.
"Chips and a battered sausage, please," he orders. Merlin glares at him.
"Would that be a large sausage or a regular?" he asks.
"Oh, a large, definitely," he says, with such unmistakable innuendo Merlin almost chokes.
"One pound eighty," Merlin says, because if Arthur thinks he's getting sausage and chips on the house after flustering him like that, he's very much mistaken. Arthur pays with a fiver and their fingers brush twice, once when he takes the note and again when he hands Arthur his change.
The second time, Arthur holds on, brushing his thumb against the skittering pulse in Merlin's wrist and leaning over the counter to say in little more than a whisper, "Tomorrow after school, yeah?"
"Yeah," Merlin replies in a slightly cracked voice, before adding, louder, "Thank you for your custom."
He fumbles his way through Mrs. Alice's order, messing up twice and ends up having to give her extra chips on the house just so she'll leave.
Double history sitting behind Arthur, knowing that his desires aren't unrequited is a whole new kind of torture. It's hard to stop looking at him and whenever their eyes meet, it's hard to look away. The difference, now that he can recognise the answering desire in Arthur's eyes is electric. Exams are looming and he really ought to be making more of an effort to concentrate but it's impossible. Whoever decided it was a good idea to give important exams to teenagers when they're busy contending with hormones anyway? Arthur passes him a note, the first in weeks and it makes his heart lurch.
Alright? it reads.
No, Merlin writes, It's too hot in here and I'm horny as fuck.
He goes over that one in black pen. There's such a thing as too honest, after all. Besides, Arthur's inner prefect would probably start twitching over the swearing.
I can't stop thinking about how much I want to touch you he writes instead. It's not the first time he's written something like this. It had helped, before, just to get the desire itching beneath his skin out somehow. He goes to tear it up instinctively, before he remembers that he is allowed to say that to Arthur now, even if it is a bit of a risk – it would be typical if old Mr Monmouth picked now to demand to see what he's written. After a second's indecision he passes it forward. He smirks as he sees Arthur's neck stiffen, payback for the sausage incident, at least.
Your place, after school? Arthur writes in return.
They walk back to the flat, Merlin telling Arthur about Mansun (a musical revelation) and Arthur discussing the Blur album and whether Britpop is dead. Merlin insists that Blur have lost their way and will never top The Great Escape. It's at once comfortable and familiar and new and exciting. They don't talk about what happened at the party, or their conversation in the chip shop or even Merlin's note that morning. Their eyes catch, every so often, and it's so hard to look away that Merlin thinks it's a miracle he manages to make it home without falling down.
It shouldn't be so hard to ask Arthur to his room, but somehow it is. Merlin doesn't want to assume, or to push too hard, despite what happened at the party. Maybe Arthur's a virgin and doesn't want to rush into anything. Maybe he isn't, Merlin reflects and swallows down the inevitable jealousy at the thought of anyone else getting to touch him.
They sit on the sofa instead, sort of but not really watching Byker Grove because it's either that or Fifteen to One.
"So," Merlin says, because somebody has to start. "You like me, then."
"Yeah," Arthur says. "I like you a lot, actually." Merlin swallows.
"And you accuse me of having a big ego."
"Shut up! You know what I mean."
"You love me," Arthur says smugly and Merlin doesn't say anything because it's true. Arthur's hand finds its way into his hair and Merlin turns so they're facing each other. "I know I was a bit of a prick," Arthur says. "I was confused, Merlin. I mean, first I thought you and Gwen were together, you know? And then I panicked, I didn't know, I didn't want to be..."
"Queer?" Merlin finishes for him.
"I guess not," Arthur says with a shrug."
"S’alright," Merlin says, because it is, now.
He decides to take the initiative this time, fitting his mouth to Arthur's, effectively shutting him up. Arthur lets out startled sort of 'mmph' noise which gives way to a deep groan as the kiss deepens. It's different this time, less desperate and more exploratory, each of them learning how the other likes it. Merlin can't get enough of touching Arthur, hands roaming over his chest and down his sides, running along his thighs, not quite gathering up the courage to go higher. Arthur gasps into his mouth and fumbles with his own belt. Merlin's dropping light kisses on Arthur's jaw, his neck, any bit of skin he can find, when Arthur takes his hand and puts it on his cock. Merlin's never touched someone else's cock before, it's different from his own, hot and heavy in his hand, familiar but strange. He squeezes experimentally and Arthur sucks in a strangled breath.
The front door opens and they spring apart, limbs flailing and zips hastily pulled up.
"Merlin," his mother says. "Perhaps you and your friend would like to go and get some fresh air."
Neither of them say a word until they're half way down the beach. Then, sneaking sideways glances at each other, they both burst into helpless snorts of laughter.
"It's not fucking funny," Merlin says, although he's in fits himself. "My mother."
"We seriously need to find somewhere more private."
"If only one of us lived in a big fuck-off mansion with a million bedrooms. Oh, wait."
"Shut up. It's no good, anyway, I'm not supposed to have anyone round at the moment. Someone at the party was sick in the fountain. Dad went mental."
"Ah," Merlin says, and wonders whether he should drop Percy in it.
By the steps, sheltered from view, Arthur presses Merlin up against the concrete and kisses him like there's nothing else he wants to do. It's brilliant and a little overwhelming all at once.
"Tomorrow then," Arthur says, pulling away at last
"Yeah," Merlin says, running his tongue curiously over his swollen lips.
It's ridiculous how difficult it is to let go.
Merlin's hopes of sneaking straight to his room to deal with his growing frustration are thwarted when he sees his mother waiting for him in the kitchen area.
"Merlin. Come and have a cup of coffee." He opens his mouth to say that he doesn't want a cup of coffee, thanks, but the look on her face stops him. His shoulders drop and he takes the offered cup. He sniffs it and pulls a face. He doesn't know whether his mum has forgotten he doesn't drink coffee, or whether this is one of those well-meaning parental attempts at treating him like an adult. He wants to say that if that's the case, he'd rather have a beer, but he doesn't think that would go down all that well.
"Oh god, Mum, you're not going to give me 'the talk', are you? I'm eighteen!"
"I know. And I remember being your age, you know. I understand," she says. "You're eighteen and you've found someone who's as interested in your penis as you are."
"Mother!" Merlin chokes out, outraged.
"I just want you to be careful. Are you using protection?"
"Mum, honestly!" Merlin protests, taking a sip of the coffee after all and spluttering slightly. Her stare is unflinching in the face of his extreme embarrassment, though, so he finds himself mumbling. "We haven't... we haven't really done anything, alright? Not that it's any of your business. Anyway," he says, a little spitefully, "At least I'm not going to get pregnant."
She sits back and studies him coolly.
"No." She takes a sip of her coffee. "I never regretted having you, though. Not once."
"Mum, I didn't mean..."
"Yes you did. And you're right. I'm a fine one to talk about being careful. But you've got your exams, Merlin. You've got a good offer and you need your grades. I don't want you throwing that all away over some boy and ending up with three Ds, no university place and a broken heart, alright?"
"Alright, mum," he says. And then, because he has to know, "You're not – I mean, you don't mind that..."
"That you're gay? Oh sweetheart, I think I've known longer than you have." He walks round and kisses her on the forehead. She pats him on the cheek in return. "Go and get some studying done, dinner'll be half an hour."
Wednesday the whole band are there for their practice for once. Arthur tells Lance and Morgana quite solemnly that he and Merlin have decided to put their differences behind them for the sake of the band. Merlin's not quite sure how he manages to keep a straight face. He doesn't question the need to keep this thing that they have going on a secret, for now, at least. Morgana raises an eyebrow and tells Merlin she hopes he made Arthur grovel on his knees. Merlin says he'll keep that in mind and shoots Arthur a look that makes him pretend to be busy with adjusting his microphone to hide his sudden blush.
They spend the time perfecting the three songs they've picked to do at the concert. Merlin's got his own way about not doing any covers, even though it's clear that His Father's Son needs a lot more practise. Morgana seems a little distant – exam stress, Merlin assumes; Lancelot's going round with a dreamy sort of look on his face, but there's really only one person in the band who absorbs all of Merlin's attention, as always. Arthur keeps looking at him, these lingering, heated glances that make Merlin fluster and fumble his way through the guitar solos. He's almost grateful for the reprieve when Morgana declares the need for a loo break forty minutes in. He's about to follow Lance out of the door when Arthur catches his hand and pulls him back, letting the outer door swing shut.
"Arthur, what – mmpph." Arthur pushes him up against the door and kisses him, hard. And if Arthur's going to make a habit of pinning him up against doors, well, he doesn't have a problem with that, to be honest.
"It's been ages," Arthur murmurs between kisses, "Since I kissed you."
"It's been less than an hour," Merlin reminds him, returning the kisses enthusiastically, "Since you locked us in the toilet cubicle at lunch." Arthur's hands creep up beneath Merlin's shirt, roaming over his skin. It's a little overwhelming, sometimes, how quickly they've gone from nothing but a few casual touches and longing glances to this, unable to keep their hands off each other.
"Mmm, we really need to stop this," Arthur groans.
"Ah, yeah, you're messing up my uniform." Merlin gasps as Arthur pinches a nipple. It's hard to think when Arthur is kissing him, touching him like this. "I think as head boy you should probably be setting a – mmm – a better example."
"We need to stop before -- Christ, that's good. After school?"
"I've got work. Tomorrow?"
There's a creak as the outer door opens and they draw apart reluctantly, Arthur smoothing down his dishevelled clothes and Merlin grabbing his guitar and sitting hunched over it to disguise his excited state.
Thursday practice is at Lance's. Arthur drives Merlin home, even though it's close enough to walk, one hand on his thigh except when he needs to change gear. He takes the long way round, winding through the streets with the windows down and The Longpigs blasting from the stereo. Merlin feels drunk with happiness, the music and Arthur. Arthur pulls up in an almost-empty car park overlooking the sea, killing the engine but keeping the music on. He reaches for Merlin, kissing him greedily. The angle's a little awkward, and Merlin gets a crick in his neck from leaning over.
"This always looks more romantic in films," Merlin says with a snort as his knee bumps the gear stick.
"That's because they don't drive Golfs," Arthur says, his hand creeping further up Merlin's thigh. He curses as his hip jars against the steering wheel. "God. You have to come over to mine. I'll sort it with dad, tell him we're revising or something."
"Tell him you need a practical biology study session." Merlin grins and waggles his eyebrows.
"Idiot," Arthur says and swats him on the arm. It makes Merlin ridiculously happy, that that same easy friendship between them is still there, just with added kissing and groping. There are still things hovering unsaid, like just how far Merlin has fallen for him, how his heart seizes, sometimes, when he looks at Arthur and wonders how long this can last.
The final weeks of term go by in a blur of revision, exams, furtive kisses and frantic handjobs. Music takes a back seat for the first time Merlin can remember. Study leave officially starts after school finishes on Friday, but somehow the teachers get wind of a plan involving eggs and flour, and send them all home unexpectedly on Friday morning. It's curiously anticlimactic, too soon to celebrate with exams still around the corner; and yet apart from the exams and the leavers' concert, school is effectively out.
If the teachers had expected their pupils to get a head start on the studying, though, they're sadly mistaken. The town is filled with seventeen and eighteen year olds wandering aimlessly around. Most of them head to the beach, Arthur and Merlin among them.
Arthur eyes a group of boys wearing their school ties around their heads as bandanas warily. Merlin has to tug on his arm and remind him that he's no longer head boy, having officially passed his badge of office on to his year twelve successor in assembly. It's a bright day, although there's a bit of a chill, and they pass the time skimming stones and eating chips. Merlin gets his guitar out of his case after a while, and Gwen and some of the other girls listen appreciatively for a bit, especially when Arthur joins in, singing along. Merlin feels his shoulders droop as he sees just how much attention Arthur is getting from the girls. Of course, they've heard by now that he's broken up with Vivian. He can't help but wonder just how long he can hold Arthur's interest, with so much competition. Especially since nobody can even know about them.
"What's got into you?" Arthur asks, bumping his shoulder against his as he zips up his guitar case.
"Nothing," Merlin says, because he doesn't want to make some kind of scene right here on the beach in front of half the sixth form.
"I've got something to show you," Arthur says.
"Oh really?" Merlin raises his eyebrows.
"Pervert," Arthur says. "Not that. Well, you'll see." He gets to his feet, bouncing on his heels like an excited puppy. "Come on."
"Alright," Merlin grumbles and heads after him.
They walk a little way along the beach, Merlin trailing a little behind, when Arthur stops in front of a beach hut.
"This one," he exclaims triumphantly.
"My dad's beach hut." Merlin remembers their conversation that cold day they bunked off and came down here and smiles.
"Very nice. You must be very proud," he says, still not getting why Arthur's made him leave his comfortable spot on the rock and come all the way over here. And then Arthur opens his hand to reveal the key. Merlin grins widely.
Once they're inside he barely has a chance to set down his guitar case before Arthur's crowding him up against the wall and kissing him.
"I knew you had something filthy in mind," Merlin gets out between kisses. His hands slip down to Arthur's arse and squeeze. "Wait. How did you know we'd even be out of school today?"
"Well," Arthur drawls, and the look on his face is half wicked, half sheepish. "Somebody might have tipped the teachers off about a massive egging and flourbombing of the school premises..."
"Knowing they'd send us out early," Merlin finishes for him. "Arthur Pendragon, criminal mastermind. Who'd have thought?"
"I'm a genius, I know." Arthur looks awfully proud of himself, and Merlin makes it his mission to wipe the smug look off his face. He knows just how to do it as well, he thinks, flipping them round so Arthur is the one pinned up against the wall. He fumbles with Arthur's zip, hands only shaking a little as he pulls down his underwear and drops to his knees. "Christ." Arthur's voice is scratchy with surprised lust. Merlin looks up and sees his pupils blown wide.
"I – nobody's ever – I didn't know if you'd want –"
"Oh I want," Merlin says, because he's been fantasising about exactly this for months, and even if he hadn't, Arthur's strangled 'nobody's ever' would have been enough to bring him to his knees. The only trouble is that for all his vivid imaginings, he's never actually done this before either. As long as he can avoid using his teeth he'll just about be ok, he thinks, with a tentative lick that makes Arthur gasp. Encouraged, he closes his mouth around the tip and sucks. Arthur jerks and Merlin pulls off. "Sorry, was that –?"
"N-no," Arthur stutters, face flushed, "It's good. Please."
Merlin can't even be smug about having reduced Arthur to begging already, because he's achingly hard himself, desperate for the weight of Arthur's cock in his mouth, the taste of him. He rubs his cheek against it, kissing his way up until he reaches the tip and then sucking it into his mouth again. He slides his lips down Arthur's length, taking him in as far as he can. Arthur's hips buck, driving his cock further down Merlin's throat and he chokes. As he pulls off he feels his teeth scrape against Arthur's skin and he's mortified. But Arthur's hand comes down to tangle in his hair, urging him back, and Merlin closes his mouth around his cock again, finding a comfortable depth and beginning to get into a stuttering rhythm.
He grips onto Arthur's thigh with one hand, pressing the heel of the other against his own straining cock. Arthur's breathing is audibly uneven as he thrusts sloppily into Merlin's mouth. Merlin's jaw is beginning to ache and he can't quite keep the suction, and the wooden boards of the hut floor are hurting his knees, but this is still by far the hottest thing that has ever happened to him. Arthur comes quickly and without warning, getting some of it in Merlin's mouth but most over his lips and his chin. Arthur's head tips back, hitting the side of the hut with an audible crack. Merlin wipes his chin with his sleeve and fumbles with his own zip. It doesn't take more than seven strokes before he's coming all over the floor and Arthur's shoes, burying his face against the soft skin of Arthur's thigh and biting his lip to keep from telling Arthur how much he loves him.
"Fuck, we're a mess," Arthur says as he looks down at him, and the sudden chill Merlin feels at having completely disregarded his plan to be careful in every sense of the word is mitigated somewhat by the warmth of affection in Arthur's smile.
"Well you planned this," Merlin says, a little disgruntled, tucking himself back in. "Didn't you bring tissues or something?"
"I didn't plan on your inability to swallow, idiot," Arthur says, but his face is flaming which softens the teasing a little.
Merlin sighs and shrugs off his blazer which is already ruined anyway and uses it to clean up as best he can, mentally factoring in a trip to the laundrette on the way home. He has time to spot the pink flush of stubble burn on Arthur's thigh before he zips himself back up and it gives him a secret thrill to think of the mark there, beneath his clothes, a concealed reminder of what they've done.
"It was alright, though, yeah?" he can't help but ask as they tidy themselves up and sneak out, hoping they haven't inadvertently attracted an audience.
"It was the best," Arthur says, hot against his ear as he leans in close, surprising him with a sloppy kiss to his jaw, even out here where people might see. It's that even more than what they've just done that has Merlin walking around in a daze with a soppy grin on his face for the rest of the weekend.
The exams are nerve-wracking, of course. Morgana seems to feel the pressure more than the rest of them which surprises Merlin as she's the one who's always seemed to take it all in her stride. She emerges white faced from the school toilets on the morning of the first exams.
"She was throwing up at home this morning as well," Arthur says with a frown.
"I think she's putting a lot of pressure on herself," Gwen observes, concerned, as she joins them.
"It's important to relax," Lancelot agrees. "Which reminds me, Gwen, Austin Powers is on at eight."
"Oh, I wanted to see that," Merlin says. "Arthur?"
"We could ask Morgana, too. It might help cheer her up."
Merlin beams at the plan coming together, not really sure why Gwen and Lancelot both look a little put out.
"Are you going to vote on Thursday?" Arthur asks, and Lance nods.
"So unfair," Gwen complains. "I've got like a week until I'm eighteen. I have to live in this country too."
"No need to ask who you're going to vote for, Tory Boy," Merlin teases.
"And I suppose you're going to vote for Blair, are you?” Arthur snorts. “Never trust a man who likes D:Ream, Merlin."
"I dunno, D:Ream aren't so bad, the keyboard player's quite fit," Merlin says, without really thinking about it. Lance's face creases in confusion and he wonders whether he's just outed himself or whether Lance's knowledge of the keyboard players in pop bands is minimal enough for him not to realise the one in question is a man.
He supposes he's only got himself to blame if he's got Things Can Only Get Better stuck in his head all the way through the exam.
Merlin finds himself embarrassingly nervous as he waits for Arthur to pick him up. It's not a date, he reminds himself. It's a group thing. And anyway, he and Arthur don't do dates. Still, he can't help but entertain a fantasy of sitting next to Arthur and holding hands in the dark.
Merlin doesn't take in much of the film. After the opening credits, Arthur's hand comes to rest on his thigh, which is more than a little distracting. He has to shrug off his jacket and place it strategically over his lap, but that only encourages Arthur, who lets his fingers creep higher, running absently and without any real intent over his clothed erection. Merlin lets his legs fall open as much as the narrow confines of the cinema seats allow and Arthur presses a little harder. Merlin sneaks a glance at him, but he's watching the screen, to all intents and purposes entirely innocent. He spends the first forty five minutes of the film teetering on the edge between pleasure and extreme frustration, choking down the embarrassing noises that want to escape with every teasing press of Arthur's fingers. Eventually he decides he can't stand it any more, and heads for the exit. He's grateful that the darkness conceals the bulge in his jeans and the strained flush of his cheeks, but can't help but wish he'd sat at the end of the row, as he trips and apologises his way over legs and coats and buckets of popcorn. He feels foolish, eyes stinging, as he ties his jacket around his waist and walks as briskly as he can towards the revolving doors at the front of the cinema.
He pauses a little to savour the feeling of the cool night air on his burning cheeks and is almost knocked flying when Arthur barrels into him. He's gratified to see that Arthur looks almost as wrecked as he feels.
"Sunday," Arthur says. "My dad's going out to play golf."
"Morgana?" Merlin asks. His hand inches forward, their fingertips just touching. Arthur doesn't pull away.
"I don't know. I'll think of something."
"Ok," Merlin says, only just getting his breathing under control, "Ok. Sunday, then."
Merlin doesn't expect his mum to believe that he's going round to Arthur's to study; he knows he's fooling no-one with the untidy folder of revision notes and the history books under his arm.
He's surprised, therefore, when he gets to Arthur's to find colour-coded revision notes laid out on the dining room table.
"Um," he says, because although he knows Arthur's conscientious about studying, he hadn't quite expected him to prioritise it over getting off with each other in the privacy of Arthur's room.
Then an imposing but unfamiliar figure appears in the doorway and he feels Arthur straighten at his side.
"Dad, this is Merlin," Arthur says, "He's helping me revise History." Merlin almost snorts, because Arthur could probably pass History with his eyes closed, Merlin's the one who needs all the help he can get, but he manages to turn out a feeble 'hello'. Uther Pendragon inclines his head in Merlin's direction in what Merlin hopes is tacit approval.
They go at it for about two hours, breaking briefly for a drink and a snack, according to Arthur's carefully drawn up revision schedule. It's probably just as well, really, Merlin decides, thinking of his mum's little speech about coming out of the summer with more than a broken heart to show for it. If he wants to get his grade requirements and get his place at UCL, get out of this town, then he needs to knuckle down and learn this. But the thing is, Camelot-on-Sea doesn't seem so bad, now. Not now there's Arthur.
But of course Arthur won't be here, either. He's off to Cambridge in the Autumn. Merlin tries not to think about that. About how far Cambridge is from London, how frequent the trains might be. About whether Arthur will – whether they will –
Arthur brushes his foot against his under the table and Merlin looks up. He's startled by the sheer want he sees in Arthur's eyes. It's harder to concentrate on history after that. Harder being the operative word. The clock creeps round.
"I'm off to the club," Uther Pendragon says at last, pausing in the doorway on his way out. "Don't forget to break for lunch."
The second the front door closes there's a flurry of paper as Arthur pushes his chair back and hauls Merlin to his feet. Their hands are clasped as Arthur leads him upstairs.
Arthur's bedroom is the last on the left. It's easily three times the size of Merlin's and not at all as neat as he expected, given Arthur's obsession with rules and uniform and colour-coded revision schedules. Arthur's stereo has a remote and Merlin presses play, curious to know the last thing Arthur listened to, here in his room. He wants to know more, to know everything. He wants Arthur to know him, too, to get under Arthur's skin the way Arthur's got under his.
Arthur spins him round and pulls Merlin's t-shirt up over his head before doing the same to his own. Merlin stares at Arthur's chest, his pink nipples, the light smattering of hair, the way his trousers are slung low on his hips. He pulls Arthur into his arms and they just press together, skin to skin. He shivers slightly as Arthur runs his hands over his back down and up again in broad, teasing strokes. Their chests rise and fall, synchronised in their own ragged rhythm as their lips meet, soft and eager. They kiss and kiss until they're both dizzy with want, and Arthur pulls Merlin down onto the bed beside him.
"Wait," Merlin says, even as he inwardly curses himself for ruining the moment. But it's one thing wanting to be alone, wanting more than stolen kisses in quiet classrooms and snatched half-hours with their hands down each others' pants in Arthur's car, but quite another to actually be alone, in bed, and not having talked about what comes next at all. "Are you, um, I mean have you ever..." he trails off, stupidly tongue-tied. There's a surprisingly wide gulf, he realises between thinking and talking about sex in the abstract and talking about it to someone who might actually want to do it with you.
"Yeah," Arthur says, looking down and clearly similarly afflicted with sudden embarrassment. "I mean, you're the only boy I've ever... anything with. But..."
"But you and Vivian," Merlin says dully. He knows there's no real reason for the sudden flare of searing jealousy, that the past is the past and he couldn't expect Arthur to wait for him, but it still hurts that Arthur chose her, that he paraded her around in front of him every day for weeks.
"Hey," Arthur says, lips pressing softly to Merlin's bare shoulder. "Yeah, I have slept with Vivian but it wasn't this time around, ok? It was when we went out last year." This makes it better, a little bit. "My first was a girl called Sophia. She was a year older. I thought I loved her, then, but looking back it was – it wasn't like –" He cuts himself off.
"Ok. It's ok," Merlin says, because it is, even though he hates Vivian, hates this Sophia he's never even met.
Arthur's lips move over his collarbone, along his throat as Merlin arches his neck back to give him better access. Arthur's hands slowly sweep down Merlin's sides, dipping down beneath his waistband. Arthur pulls him to his feet and unbuttons his trousers. Merlin follows suit, trousers dropping to the floor. They stand there facing each other, naked, and Merlin can only stare because for all they've done so far he's never seen all of him, like this, and it takes his breath away.
"You're gorgeous," he says, and his voice is unexpectedly low and husky.
"You too," Arthur says, and it's not his words so much as the hungry look in his eyes that brings a lump to Merlin's throat.
"And you – you really want this? Me?" Merlin says. It's not that he's insecure, not really, but after six months or more of unrequited pining, it's almost hard to believe.
"Hell yes," Arthur says, reaching out and curling one hand around Merlin's erection. He attacks Merlin's mouth once more, and with all the frantic kissing and rubbing, Merlin's pretty sure he's not going to last long enough for anything else. "I don't know what – Merlin, tell me. I want..."
"I don't know either," Merlin admits. It's not like he hasn't touched himself in the privacy of his room, imagined it was more, but the practicalities are something he's still a little vague on.
"Haven't you... you know, watched any videos, or..."
"No! Have you?"
"Well, no. I mean, at Leon's, ones with girls, but not... yeah."
"Can you imagine going into a shop and asking?"
"Not really," Arthur admits. They look at each other, then, and Arthur's half smile turns into a full blown snort of laughter. Merlin chuckles, and Arthur half-wrestles, half tickles him onto the floor.
Somehow he finds himself half sprawled over the edge of the bed with Arthur behind him, his hands on his hips, his lips pressing against his shoulders and neck, his cock nudging against Merlin's backside. Merlin shivers and sucks in a breath.
"Do you want me to?"
"Yes," Merlin says, bracing himself against the bed.
"I'll just –" Arthur's warmth disappears from his back and he reaches in his drawer for a condom, ripping the packet and putting it on. Arthur pulls his head round for one more deep kiss before lining himself up against him. The insistent pressure and the anticipation cause Merlin to hold his breath as Arthur pushes in.
It hurts. It hurts too much, pain spiking like he's being split open. He tries to bury his face in the duvet to muffle his cries, because people do this, don't they? It can't be that bad, but it is, it is and he cries out. Arthur stops immediately, pulling out and gripping his shoulders.
"Merlin? Merlin are you ok? Shit, I didn't mean – Merlin, please."
He can't stop shaking. This isn't how it was supposed to go.
"It's – it hurt. Sorry."
"Shh, don't, don't say – I'm sorry, I shouldn't have – We don't have to, we'll stop." Merlin shakes his head, eyes prickling, burying his face in the duvet. He feels like such an idiot. "Merlin, turn round, look at me." He shifts round, Arthur's arms still around him, the two of them slumped on the floor in a messy embrace.
"I just don't think we did it right."
"Obviously," Arthur says, with a hint of a smile. Merlin turns away, embarrassed. He feels like he's well and truly fucked everything up. "Hey, none of that, come on," Arthur cups his jaw and pulls him back round to face him, kissing him sweetly. "It's not your fault."
"We're rubbish, aren't we?"
"Hopeless," Arthur agrees, but his smile is full of such affection, Merlin can't help but answer with a kiss. "We don't have to, you know," Arthur says seriously. "Not yet. Not ever, if it doesn't work out. We can still..."
"Oh, we can still lots of things," Merlin says meaningfully, and is rewarded by Arthur's eyes darkening, and his cock, which had begun to soften, rising insistently against his thigh.
"Turn back round," Arthur urges him, voice hoarse. "Go on, I won't put it in, I promise. Just –"
"Alright," Merlin says. He likes the feeling of Arthur curled warmly against his back, his cock trapped between them, nestled between his cheeks. Arthur reaches around and takes him in hand, pulling in long, firm strokes. He can feel Arthur's own hardness at the base of his spine, jerking against him, the slap of skin on skin loud in the room now that the CD has played out.
The movement of Arthur's hand on Merlin's cock grows erratic as his thrusts increase, and Merlin reaches down to wrap his own hand around Arthur's, urging him on.
"Merlin," Arthur murmurs, breath hot and damp against his shoulder, "This is so – Merlin I – fuck, I love this. I love you." And with one last strangled moan he's spilling over his back, enough to drive Merlin over the edge himself, heart beating loud with the echo of Arthur's words.
They must have dozed off, Merlin realises as he wakes to the sound of the front door slamming. He blinks, naked and sticky and decidedly disorientated, Arthur's head pillowed against his chest. Merlin dislodges Arthur as he scrambles about on the floor for his clothes. He's in desperate need of a shower, but there's no time.
"Arthur," he says urgently, "Wake up, someone's here."
"Ngggh," Arthur says and rolls over.
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin says as he hops around putting his socks on. "Wake up, now, or I swear I will get a bucket of water and throw it over you."
"What?" Arthur sits up, rubbing his eyes. Merlin's distracted for a second by the sight of him, adorably sleep rumpled and gloriously naked. He wants nothing more than to crawl back into bed with him, to find out if Arthur really meant what he said as he came earlier, but there's no time.
"Someone's here," Merlin hisses. "Downstairs."
His words finally sink in and Arthur scrambles to his feet.
"Shit." He finds his watch and looks at it. "Dad wouldn't be back this early. Must be Morgana."
They straighten the bedclothes out as best they can and creep downstairs. There's no way they're fooling anybody; Merlin can't get one side of his hair to lie flat, Arthur's misbuttoned his shirt and they smell of sex. But Morgana doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow. She's sitting hunched up with her arms curled around her belly, hair lank and face pale. Merlin's rarely seen her anything other than poised, so he hangs back, unsure what to say.
"You alright, Morgana?" Arthur asks his sister.
"What do you think?" she snaps back, and he holds up his hands in a defensive gesture.
"Look, if you're stressed about the exams, maybe you can talk to your tutor, there's breathing techniques and –" She cuts him off with a hysterical sob.
"For goodness' sake, Arthur, I'm not stressed about the exams, alright? I'm pregnant."
"Pregnant. And before you ask, yes it's Helios's and no, he doesn't want anything to do with it."
There's a stunned silence. Merlin doesn't know what to say – he's betting 'congratulations' is out, but 'I'm sorry' doesn't seem quite appropriate either. Morgana just stares ahead with that wide-eyed rabbit-in-the-headlights look.
Arthur clears his throat a little nervously and says, "I'm gay."
"What?" Morgana just looks at him, as though she can't quite fathom what he's saying or why he's saying it.
"I'm gay," Arthur says, a little more firmly. "Merlin's my boyfriend." For all the seriousness of the situation, Merlin feels his heart do a little flip at the word boyfriend. Then Morgana starts to laugh, a nervous, sputtering giggle that turns into a full-throated cackle.
"I'm not joking," Arthur says, a crease in his brow, doubtless annoyed that his confession hasn't been taken seriously. He reaches for Merlin's hand and holds it fast.
"Oh I know," Morgana says, "I believe you, I just – I don't know which one of us Dad is going to kill first." Arthur's lips twitch and he loosens his grip on Merlin's hand to sink down on the sofa next to his sister.
"Oh Morgs," he sighs, smile fading as he pulls her into a half-hug.
"What am I going to do, Arthur?"
Merlin shuffles forward, feeling a little awkward intruding on this private family moment and coughs.
"You could, er– you could talk to my mum. She's the only one I know with, um, practical experience."
He's not exactly expecting them to take him up on the suggestion but after a pause Morgana nods, and the three of them pile into Arthur's Golf. Merlin lets Morgana have the front seat.
"Although, honestly, with the way Arthur drives you'll only die sooner sat there," he says as he climbs into the back. Arthur drives deliberately slowly in response.
"Sometime today would be good, Arthur. I was only kidding about your driving. Mostly."
"Can't be too careful, we've got a pregnant lady on board."
"Oh god, would you not call me that!"
"What would you prefer, 'knocked-up teen'?"
"Just shut up and drive."
Merlin's mum provides tea and sympathy in equal measure.
"Peppermint for you dear," she says, handing Morgana a mug. "Caffeine isn't good for the baby. Merlin do sit down, you're hovering."
Merlin doesn't want to sit down, but he can't very well tell his mum why. It's ridiculous that he should still be sore when they barely even did anything. Arthur's looking at him with concern, so he sits, flashing him a 'nothing to worry about' smile and ignoring the twinge as he lowers himself down.
"Thank you," Morgana says politely as she sips her peppermint tea, although she's pulling a face at the taste.
"It's not the worst thing you'll have to get used to, believe me. Besides, it helps with the wind. Now you lot stay here while I just run down to Boots. If you need to wee, just cross your legs."
"Bit late for that," Arthur mutters and Merlin kicks him under the table.
Morgana is gaping as Merlin's mum shuts the door behind her.
"Yeah," Merlin says, rubbing his neck ruefully. "I forgot to mention that she can be a bit like that."
When Hunith returns she dumps two plastic Boots bags on the table.
"Here," she says, pulling out a pregnancy test kit from the first bag and handing it to Morgana. "Just to be absolutely sure." Morgana disappears off to the loo, clutching the packet. "You two," she continues, sliding the second bag over to Merlin and looking severely at them.
Inside the bag is a box of condoms and two tubes of KY jelly.
"Kill me," Merlin says, not able to bring himself to look at Arthur. "Kill me now."
Hunith spends a long time talking to Morgana about her options, scans, healthy eating and the possibility of deferring her place at uni. Merlin drags Arthur over to the sofa at the first mention of the word 'cervix' and they flick the telly on.
"I'm not sure if your mum's amazing or terrifying," Arthur admits, speaking in a low voice, just about audible above the theme from Grandstand.
"I think her aim is to embarrass me into never having sex ever."
"Well I hope she doesn't succeed," Arthur says, reaching for his hand. It's warm and comforting and Merlin swallows as Arthur blinks up at him. "Look," Arthur says in a rush, "I know it didn't exactly go as we planned it, but, we'll work it out, yeah? You can do it to me, if you'd rather."
It's definitely the most appealing proposition he's ever had in his life and Merlin wishes he was in a position to take him up on it right away.
"That'd be, um, yeah," he says, pulling a cushion over his lap, just in case Morgana or his mother should happen to look over. Arthur smirks at him, looking him up and down meaningfully.
"Eager, are we?"
Merlin hits him with the cushion.
When it's time for Arthur and Morgana to leave, Merlin follows them to the door, hovering awkwardly. His mum is fussing over Morgana, still, insisting that she can call her anytime and is always welcome to stay. Morgana is eyeing the lumpy sofa and the peppermint tea a little nervously and clearly hoping it won't come to that.
"You too, Arthur," she adds, and Merlin reflects that his mum knowing exactly what they'd be up to and offering tips on safe sex is a much more effective deterrent than any 'not under my roof' spiel Arthur's father could potentially come up with.
"Bye then," he says with a shrug. He wants to ask Arthur about what he said earlier that afternoon. He won't remember, won't have meant it, not in the way Merlin means it. After all, people say all kind of nonsense in the heat of the moment, don't they? Besides, it's hardly the time or the place. Arthur's eyes flicker briefly over to his sister and Merlin's mum, before he gives Merlin a sly smile and leans in, catching Merlin's lips softly with his own in a quick kiss. Merlin's mum coughs and he pulls back, rubbing the back of his neck with a rueful grin.
"Bye Merlin," he says.
"Ew," sniffs Morgana, "Just because I know about you two and support you, doesn't mean I want to actually see it."
"Well, just as long as you know I feel the same about you popping your sprog out," Arthur retorts as they disappear down the steps.
The concert is on the Friday after the last exams.
It's strange, going into school again, in the evening, after exams, seeing the old buildings quite literally in a different light. It must be stranger still for Arthur, he reflects, and Morgana and Gwen and Lance who've all been coming here for seven years. Even in the one year since he moved here, Merlin can't quite believe how much has changed.
They've been allowed to wear their own clothes. And if he needed any more reasons to be grateful Mr. Kilgarrah sent him to Avalon and not to the school orchestra, one look at them in their red jackets and treble clef ties provides the clincher. (The choir, though, get to wear capes, which he thinks is pretty awesome, although he won't admit that within the hearing of any of his friends.)
"Hold this," Morgana says, thrusting her bass in his general direction. "I need a wee."
"I should never have introduced her to my mother," Merlin says shaking his head.
"Dangerous combination," Arthur agrees.
There's a burst of applause from the hall signifying the end of the brass band's number and Merlin glances one more time at the timetable, even though he knows it's them up next. He fiddles reflexively with the strap on his guitar, half convinced it will snap at a crucial moment in their set. Like those dreams where you're naked in front of the whole school.
"Sorry, sorry," Morgana says as she rushes back and grabs her bass back from her brother. They wait in the wings as a steady stream of euphoniums and cornets file past them.
"Nervous?" Merlin ventures to ask.
Arthur scoffs. "I don't get nervous."
It's clearly a lie, though Merlin doubts anyone but him and possibly Morgana would be able to tell he's anything other than perfectly poised and cool as Avalon is called and they finally take to the stage. Arthur's all swagger as he steps out and curls his hands around the microphone, if just a shade paler than normal under the unusual brightness of the stage lights.
Merlin concentrates on plugging in and making sure he's entirely in tune with Morgana, talking in hushed whispers as Arthur tests the mic and Lance rattles his sticks at the back of the stage. There's a low hum of chatter and rustling programmes from the audience, all the year thirteens and their parents, most of the year twelves and quite a few from the lower school as well. Merlin's glad he doesn't need to look at them. It's hot under the lights, a factor which Merlin hadn't bargained for, not something that had been an issue at rehearsals, and he slides one finger under his collar to loosen it. Eventually Arthur turns and nods at each of them in turn. Lance taps his sticks together, an audible 1,2,3,4 and they're into the opening bars of The Secret Sharer.
It's the most upbeat of their set list, chosen as the opener to warm the audience up and it certainly seems to be working if the applause is anything to go by. There are a couple of wolf whistles, too – Merlin suspects Gwen – and even, he thinks, a couple of voices singing along. It's the song they made the demo of, of course, and had been apparently quite popular with a small but loyal group of year nines.
Merlin gives only a moment's thought to how it's being received, though. He leaves it to Arthur to work the audience; his concentration is on the music. He knows the song by heart, of course, his fingers moving over the strings as if by instinct, anticipating every riff, every drum roll, every slight hitch in Arthur's voice as he pauses for breath. It's as familiar to him as his own skin.
He's shaking, ever so slightly, as the final notes reverberate around the hall and Arthur's saying, "Thank you, we're Avalon and that was our song, The Secret Sharer. This one's called His Father's Son," and they're straight into it.
It's probably the weakest of the bunch, he knows, one of the earliest ones they did, although he's fond of the glissando he put in and fonder still of the way Arthur shapes the "Oh oh," of the chorus. He looks over at him; Arthur's in his element here, putting on a performance, swaying back and posturing with one hand on his hip like he's born to it. And in that moment Merlin wants nothing more than to do this, always. The song crescendos with Arthur's repeated and I am not, I am not, I am not what you made me and his heart seems to echo the music, a rising tide of adrenaline and joy. It's like magic.
"This is our last song," Arthur announces, to a chorus of disappointed 'oh's from the front row and one, loud, unmistakable 'thank fuck for that' from someone at the side who is undoubtedly about to get kicked out but causes a ripple of giggles in the hall nonetheless. "Our first heckler," Arthur says, making a joke of it. "I'm honoured. Anyway, this our last song. It's about love."
There are more wolf whistles then, as Lance leads them into the song, Morgana rocking the distinctive bassline. This is it, their last song, their last stand. It's Merlin's favourite, full of such yearning that it makes his heart twist in his chest no matter how many times they've played it. He's all but blistered his fingers getting that change from G7 into D and there's a soar of elation when he manages it without a hitch. Arthur plays this one differently, clutching the microphone with both hands, wide-eyed and intimate. Now his eyes have adjusted to the lights, Merlin thinks if he looks into the audience he can pick out at least six girls who wish the song was about them.
But it isn't, Merlin realises with a jolt that almost makes his fingers slip as he slides them down the fret. All those songs, Arthur had said that day in the chip shop, they were never about her. He's been angsting for the best part of the week over the words Arthur had let slip when they were in bed and yet all these lyrics with their passion and longing have been all for him, all along. And if there had been any lingering doubts in his mind, the way Arthur turns to look at him over his shoulder in the final chorus would have blown them all away.
The audience could be cheering or jeering them for all he knows, it's nothing but a dull distant roar that can't make itself heard over the echo of the drumbeat in his head and the exhilarated pounding of his heart.
His ears are still ringing as he fumbles with the wires, unplugging his guitar from the school amp, and by some miracle manages to negotiate the steps at the side of the stage without tripping. He's clammy with sweat and a glance at Morgana in her velvet ensemble and Lance in his leather jacket shows him he's not alone in that respect. By unspoken agreement they leave their instruments in the backstage area (more commonly known as the home economics department) and head outside to the courtyard, the night air cooling their overheated skin.
Merlin feels he could fly if he put his mind to it. He knows he's grinning like an idiot but he can't help it.
"Give over, you look like a right nutter," Arthur says, jabbing him in the side. Merlin goes to jab back, but Arthur catches his hand and reels him in close. For a moment Merlin thinks he's going to kiss him, right there in the courtyard where anyone could walk by at any minute, kids and parents and staff milling about just through the double doors to the hall. But he slings his arm around his shoulders instead, and doesn't pull away and that's pretty much the next best thing.
"That was fantastic," Merlin says. He knows Arthur's trying to play it cool but the goofy little smile on his face would be a dead giveaway even if he weren't close enough to feel the thump of his heart beneath his thin shirt.
"Yeah," he agrees, and Merlin's about to suggest something ridiculous like they do this all the time, always, the two of them and the band and the music when Gwen comes crashing through the doors.
"You were amazing!" she half-squeals, running over and hugging each of them in turn. "You're going to be massive, I just know it. Brit awards all round."
"Please," Arthur says, "As if we'd get out bed for anything less than the Mercury."
"And I get to say I was your first fan," Gwen continues, "I could start a club."
"I think we've got a groupie," Merlin says pulling a face at her. "When are you going to start throwing your underwear at us, then?"
"I think there's only one person Gwen's going to be throwing her underwear at right now," Arthur says against his ear, and Merlin's eyebrows climb as he sees Gwen with her arms flung around Lance's neck, giving him an enthusiastic snog.
"When did that happen?" Merlin wonders aloud. Arthur shrugs in response.
"I guess we've all been a bit caught up in our own stuff," he says, and it's true enough. Merlin feels a pang of guilt thinking of all the times he whined to Gwen about Arthur, only to practically abandon her when Arthur decided he wanted him after all. He should have known, just like they should have known there was something up with Morgana. And he should have told her about him and Arthur. He's about to ask Arthur if it's alright if they do just that when some more of their classmates pile out of the hall. Must be the interval, Merlin realises, as several of them light up.
"Alright Pendragon, not bad," says Percy, nodding in their direction. Merlin tenses, preparing for Arthur to draw away but he only tightens his arm around him, even when Percy is followed out by Leon and Valiant.
"Cheers, Perce," Arthur says, with an answering nod. He doesn't even say anything about the cigarette on school premises.
"Is she working her way through the band or what?" Valiant snorts, jerking his thumb at Gwen. Merlin thinks it’s probably evens on who punches him first, Gwen or Lance. But then Valiant turns his attention to him and Arthur, and Merlin thinks he might have a go, the broken hand bones might just be worth it.
“Fancy a fag?” Valiant offers his pack of cigarettes. Merlin shakes his head, warily, wondering what Valiant’s trick is this time. “No I suppose you don’t," Valiant continues with a smirk. "You are one already.”
"What did you say?" Arthur asks mildly, a hint of steel behind the words. Valiant flounders a little.
"What did you say, to Merlin just now?"
"Nothing mate, just a bit of banter. What's the matter with you? You want to be careful, Pendragon, it might be catching," Valiant sniggers.
"And what might that be?" Arthur's arm slips down from around Merlin's shoulder and he reaches out and takes Merlin's hand in his instead, an unmistakable challenge.
Valiant notices and his face contorts into a strange expression of vicious delight.
"No fucking way," Valiant's saying. "You fucking have as well."
Valiant's turning to the others, but they seem decidedly nonplussed. Percy's face registers mild surprise but beyond that, it's like they just aren't bothered. Merlin feels the briefest stab of resentment that he's suffered years of bullying for his sexuality, before he even knew what it was himself, while Arthur effectively comes out to half the sixth form and nobody bats an eyelid. Like just because Arthur's doing it, suddenly it's ok. But then it occurs to him that really, this is a good thing. That Arthur has acknowledged him in front of everyone, that they're ok about it – well, all except Valiant who, seeing he's not going to get any backup on this, flicks his cigarette at Merlin's feet and stomps off in disgust. It's more than he'd hoped for and he feels suddenly that he's done his classmates a disservice in expecting worse.
Gwen, tucked under Lancelot's arm, is bug-eyed, with more questions than their usual eye movements and hand signals can possibly convey (although Merlin imagines that if she were to put them into words she'd come up with something along the lines of "what, how, when, huh, ohmygod"). Merlin gives her a sheepish grin and squeezes Arthur's hand.
"Seriously?" she mouths, at last, and Merlin just grins at her, riding high on a wave of euphoria induced by the gig, their relatively painless coming out, and the knowledge that this is the last time they'll set foot in the school (until results day, at least).
He and Arthur walk out of the school for the last time, hand in hand. Right now he feels like anything's possible. And in a way it is. They've got their whole lives ahead of them. They might burn bright for years to come. They might fall and flounder at the first hurdle. They've got university to contend with, negotiating new friendships and hanging on to the ones they've made here as well as studying. Morgana's got the baby. They're on the edge of everything, the future a blank score, yet to be written, simmering with possibility. They might be stars. Might be anything at all.